Incredible as it sounds, HBO has David Attenborough to thank for its newest TV series The Last of Us. While watching an episode of Planet Earth, Neil Druckmann was struck by a clip featuring an ant slowly being taken over by a brain-eating fungus.
“I immediately thought, ‘Why has no one used this as an origin for a zombie outbreak?’ Because that’s exactly what it is,” he says. That lightbulb moment ultimately became a video game – the bestselling The Last of Us franchise from Naughty Dog studio – where Druckmann is co-president – and from there, an adaptation starring Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, which will be landing on screens on January 16.
In The Last of Us, the world has been ravaged by the cordyceps fungus, with humans struggling to survive against both the threat of infection and groups of raiders who prey on people wandering outside carefully managed quarantine zones. In this post-apocalyptic landscape, two survivors – Joel and Ellie – set out on a mission. Joel wants to track down his missing brother, while Ellie’s immunity to the deadly spores might well make her the key to manufacturing a vaccine and changing the world.
It’s an addictive premise, but it wasn’t the zombies that first got fellow showrunner Craig Mazin’s attention. “I understand why people like the idea of zombies; they’re an incredibly extensible analogy for whatever you want them to be, whether that’s consumerism or mortality. But what I do love and am fascinated by is the way disease can disrupt our humanity and show how fragile we are,” he says.
“As we developed this story, Neil and I were really careful to keep drawing that line between a sick, infected person and a person who was a monster.”
The pair originally bonded over their mutual love for each others’ work – Mazin had previously worked on acclaimed TV series Chernobyl, which Druckmann calls “best thriller I had ever seen in my life” – and after a throwaway line from Druckmann about adapting The Last of Us into a show, they began to plan in earnest.
The idea of adapting video games for the big (or small) screen is not a new one, but it is a cursed one; shows like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time or the Assassin’s Creed adaptation starring Michael Fassbender sank without trace shortly after release.
However, Druckmann (who has been involved in the gaming industry since 2003) was adamant that The Last of Us was going to be different, not least because of how immersive and complex the original story was.
“I have always been intrigued by the ‘videogame curse’ where videogames have historically made poor adaptations when translated into passive media. Which makes many people think that videogames are poor storytelling vehicles,” he says. “And I liked the idea that people might watch this adaptation, be blown away, and say, ‘What? That was based on a videogame?’”
To make the show sing, Druckmann and Mazin needed to find two leads capable of delivering note-perfect performances as the on-screen versions of Joel and Ellie.
Fortunately, Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey were both on board from the word go. “I hadn’t heard of the game before I got the job. But the first couple of scripts were given to me and I thought they were astonishing,” Pascal says. “It was very revelatory to find out that the source material was an immersive video game experience.”
“The scripts were the best I have ever read, and it became like a spiritual experience reading them,” Ramsey adds.
Neither of the pair had never played The Last of Us before – which they say both Druckmann and Mazin were keen for them not to do.
“They wanted to protect me and they didn’t want me to feel I had to copy the game and Ashley [Johnson]’s iconic Ellie,” Ramsey said. “I felt like Ellie was part of me already; she was one of my skins. I did disobey orders a bit and watch some of the gameplay because it was so good. With the game they have created these amazing movies, essentially, and I thought they were fantastic.”
The show’s relationship to the video game did cause difficulties for Mazin and Druckmann, who had to decide how much of the original game to transfer to the big screen – and which bits to cut.
“When we first met, we talked about the things we wanted to keep the same,” Druckmann says, citing zombie variants like “Clickers” and “Bloaters” as elements that successfully made the leap to the small screen. “[However] one of the things that Craig said, and I leaned into, was that whenever we can separate ourselves from zombies we should take that opportunity. Whenever we can make things more grounded, as we did with the game, we should take that opportunity.”
Mazin stresses that the switch to television also gave the team freedom to explore certain other storylines in more detail – such as, for instance, the relationship between Bill and Frank, which is only briefly covered in the game, or the Easter egg regarding the character Ish and a secret underground community, which, again, is only touched on in the games.
“The purpose of adjusting [the storylines] was to deliver the same impact in television as they have in the game. It also gives us an opportunity to expand and fill out some things they weren’t able to do in the game because games have their own restrictions,” he says. “I also love the moments where our story lines up and the two universes come together and are in perfect unison. It goes apart and comes back together.”
Both Ramsey and Pascal have fond memories of the shoot – much of which took place in the Canadian Rockies – perhaps inevitably, they ended up bonding through laughter.
“There was too much laughter at times; it was painful,” Ramsey says. “Ellie almost immediately starts chipping away at Joel and being sarcastic and trying to make him laugh and fails most of the time. She is relentless and the moment she does make him smile for the first time, that’s a great achievement, making this grumpy-guts laugh. It’s a really sweet part of their relationship.”
Pascal agrees – one of his favourite memories of the shoot are “those attacks of the giggles” – and according to Mazin, the laughter was an essential part of what made The Last of Us tick.
“I think smart people will see the absurdity of situations and existence in a post-apocalyptic world, and it’s inevitable that those living in it will start making fun of it. You have to take the piss out of it because it’s so serious,” he says.
“It’s part of what defines us as humans; we can laugh even in the face of armageddon, and watching Ellie and Joel give each other shit is essential.”
With the show about to hit screens, there’s a lot of pressure riding on Mazin and Druckmann – but Druckmann is sanguine about it.
“I entered this deal with a lot of trepidation and some fear that this could end badly,” he says. “But having seen the love everyone poured into it, I’m incredibly proud of this, just as proud as when we made the game. It feels very special. And even if it fails — and I don’t think it will — I wouldn’t change anything about it.”