Warning: the below contains full spoilers for The Last of Us premiere, as well as the beginning of the video game.
In 2013, writer Neil Druckmann and developer Naughty Dog traumatized a generation of gamers with what could very well be the most devastating opening in video game history (until, that is, The Last of Us Part II came along). The Last of Us infamously opens with a gutpunch, having the player watch as a devastated Joel holds his dying daughter in his arms in the midst of a burgeoning zombie apocalypse. It’s one of the things that made The Last of Us the touchstone that it is, establishing an integral part of our protagonist’s motivations and setting the stage for one emotionally grueling game.
So how do you follow that up when adapting it to a television series? Apparently, you make it even more heartbreaking. Showrunners Druckmann and Craig Mazin could’ve just made a one-to-one adaptation of the game’s opening and it still would’ve been an effective introduction, but instead, they give us valuable time with Sarah (Nico Parker), while taking the opportunity to slowly build some chilling tension. The end result – Sarah dying in Joel’s (Pedro Pascal) arms – is the same, but the journey to get there is a key example of how adaptations can build upon their predecessors while staying loyal to them.
What Changed and What Stays the Same
The TV series doesn’t so much change the opening as much as it adds to it. In fact, it quite literally doubles the runtime of the intro; in the game, it takes about 15 minutes to get from pressing play to watching the opening title card, whereas the series lingers further, spending 34 minutes setting the environment before jumping forward 20 years. Of those 34 minutes, only about 10 are spent directly adapting scenes from the game – specifically, when Joel, Sarah, and Tommy (Gabriel Luna) are booking it out of town, and staying true to its source to the point of showing Joel electing to keep driving past a family begging for help.
So what pads out the other 24 minutes? Firstly, some context for the virus that the characters are about to face, with a talk show clip from 1968 that has doctors explaining the threat that a certain type of fungus could pose to the human race (interestingly enough, the game saved its snippets of panicked news reports for after the initial intro, placing them over the opening credits that follow the title card). This serves to, again, build a little tension before we essentially get a day in the life of Sarah.
The TV series doesn’t rush its way to her death. Instead, we spend precious time with her, seeing the world through her eyes just hours before it descends into chaos. We don’t start in the evening, but at breakfast, with her preparing eggs for Joel’s birthday. From there, we see her going through the day-to-day motions – attending school, heading into the city to get Joel’s watch fixed, reluctantly spending time with the neighbors, and watching in horror as the pandemic begins to unfold.
Why the Changes Matter
Given that Sarah is still killed in the premiere, these additions might just seem like indulgent ways to elongate the already hefty 86-minute episode. But it’s clear that Druckmann and Mazin (who co-wrote the episode together) have a more considered goal, one based on adding weight to Sarah’s eventual death. There’s humanity in the mundane, and watching her go about these seemingly unimportant actions quietly gives us insight into her as a character, making us more attached to her in the process.
In the morning, we get to know her as a caretaker of sorts, making sure that her dad gets a birthday breakfast while also weaving in some charming banter between her, Joel, and Tommy. And in the game, while we may have seen her give the fixed watch to Joel, we didn’t see the thought that went into heading to the city to get it repaired. And when she’s hanging with the Adlers, she’s clearly not thrilled to be there, but she’s a devoted enough daughter that she heeds Joel’s request to do so without much of an argument.
In seeing all this, we get significant insight into her personality – something that the game didn’t take the time to do. Sure, we got to know game Sarah as funny while joking with Joel on the couch (the “Drugs. I sell hardcore drugs” quip survives in the show), and thoughtful in giving him the gift of the watch. But there’s something powerful and, most importantly, humanizing about seeing what she’s doing, rather than just knowing that it happened somewhere off-screen. It paints a picture of a more fleshed-out character who we can relate to and empathize with, making it even more heartbreaking when she’s inevitably offed. I won’t put Pedro Pascal’s performance up against game actor Troy Baker’s – both are absolutely gut-wrenching in Sarah’s death scene – but in the series, we’re not just crying over Joel losing his daughter; we’re crying over a character we got to know too.
On that note, it has the added benefit of making you think she’ll be the main character if you don’t know any better – and, given that HBO is marketing the series far beyond those who’ve played the game, there are going to be plenty of people who don’t know Sarah won’t live to see the end of the episode. It’s not quite “Ned Stark getting beheaded” levels of killing off your main character, but it’s certainly still a shock to unknowing audiences and gives them an idea of the stakes.
Sarah, too, is our anchor as the outbreak unfolds, and this is where I’d be remiss in not praising Nico Parker’s performance, as short-lived as it may be. As Sarah, she’s constantly relatable and charming, and the tear that escapes from her eye as she struggles to remain calm while Tommy and Joel rush them out of town is a brilliant little touch. Placing viewers in her shoes makes the tension more effective as well, with Parker showing real terror upon seeing the brutalized Adlers. And that shot of the elderly Adler, Connie, subtly showing symptoms in the background while Sarah reads a DVD box? Perfectly chilling.
What It Could Mean for the Series
As with any adaptation, one of the main questions facing HBO’s The Last of Us has been how much it will deviate from the source material. But that question perhaps hangs heavier over this adaptation than others, as The Last of Us’ story is one that could very easily be transferred to television without many tweaks and still be riveting. After all, there are more than a few compilations on YouTube that tell a compelling story just by stringing together The Last of Us’ important cutscenes.
But the best adaptations aren’t just the ones that do the story justice, but that evolve it – ones that take advantage of the medium to fill in character and world-building gaps. And it also gives Druckmann, the writer behind all of this, the chance to improve upon his own work from a decade ago, an opportunity many writers would kill for. You can’t judge a TV adaptation on just its premiere – 34 minutes of that premiere, no less – but in reworking one of the most iconic scenes from his own game, Druckmann’s made it clear he won’t be resting on his storytelling laurels for this one.
It also means that fans who are still recovering from the devastation of the game (and, it has to be said, from the emotional wringer that was The Last of Us Part II) have a lot more heartbreak to endure. But hey, at least you won’t be getting tears on your controller this time, right?