How the Premiere of HBO's The Last of Us Differed From the Video Game

HBO's highly-anticipated The Last of Us premiered Jan. 15, an adaptation of the cherished video game franchise. Find out how the premiere episode veered off course from the games.

By Daniel Trainor Jan 16, 2023 3:30 AMTags
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The apocalypse has finally arrived. 

On Jan. 15, The Last of Us premiered on HBO, an adaptation of the wildly popular and beloved video game franchise. The series stars Pedro Pascal as Joel, a smuggler tasked with transporting a young girl named Ellie, played by Bella Ramsey, across a pandemic-ravaged, apocalyptic America. 

Ellie, as viewers learn in the first episode, is incredibly important cargo—though the exact reason remains a mystery. 

The premiere also introduced Nico Parker, Gabriel Luna, Anna Torv and Merle Dandridge as Sarah, Tommy, Tess and Marlene, respectively. Future season one episodes will introduce characters played by Murray Bartlett, Melanie Lynskey, Nick Offerman, Storm Reid and Rutina Wesley.

Released in 2013, The Last of Us video game quickly became a critical and commercial smash, with total sales of the original game and its 2020 sequel, The Last of Us Part II, surpassing 37 million copies worldwide as of December 2022, according to developer Naughty Dog.

The HBO adaptation works as an incredibly meticulous, faithful adaptation of the original property, which makes sense because The Last of Us creative director Neil Druckmann acts as co-creator of the TV series, alongside Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin.

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At a recent press day for the show, according to Gizmodo, Mazin confirmed that the first season of The Last of Us will cover the events of the first game, with potential further seasons tackling the game's sequel and beyond.

However, while the show and the game share much of the same fabric and DNA, not everything is exactly the same. 

To find out how the premiere episode differed from the content of the video game, keep scrolling.


The threat of the pandemic

The video game wastes no time in kicking things into high gear—or letting you know that something is amiss. The morning after Sarah—played by Hana Hayes—gives her father Joel—played by Troy Baker—a repaired watch for his birthday, she finds a newspaper in the bathroom with the headline: "Admittance Spikes at Local Hospitals." The paper references a "mysterious infection" for the surge.

It's all downhill from there.

The series takes a slower, more detailed and decidedly more ominous approach. It opens with a news program in 1968, with two epidemiologists discussing the theoretical threat of a global pandemic.

After one doctor pushes back at the other's assertion that a fungal infection could be capable of wiping out humanity, he retorts, "True, fungi cannot survive if its host's internal temperature is over 94 degrees and currently there are no reasons for fungi to be able to evolve to withstand higher temperatures, but what if that were to change? What if, for instance, the world where to get slightly warmer? Well, now there is reason to evolve."

That's called foreshadowing!

"Not of millions of us, but billions of us," the expert continues. "Billions of puppets with poisoned minds, permanently fixed on one unifying goal: to spread the infection to every last human alive by any means necessary."


Time frame change

While the pandemic begins in 2013 in the game, with the main events happening 20 years later in 2033, the series shifts that timeline a bit. Instead, the pandemic explodes in 2003 and most of the action takes place in 2023.


"I have this thing about jumping into the future," Mazin told TechRadar. "I feel like, if I'm watching a show and the year is 2023, and the show takes place in 2043, it's just a little less real. Even if I'm watching a show in 2023 and it takes place in 2016, it's a little less real. So I thought it might be interesting to just say, ‘Hey, look, in this parallel universe, this is happening right now. This is happening this year.'"


The next door neighbors

In the game, Joel and Sarah live next door to the Coopers. Poor, unfortunate Jimmy Cooper becomes the first infected person that Joel and Sarah cross paths with, and Joel shoots him dead after breaking into their house. 

In the series, Joel and Sarah live next door to the Adlers—and boy, do we get to know them a bit more intimately. It is revealed that Sarah often goes next door to spend time with the Adlers, including adult neighbor Connie and her ailing, elderly mother. We see Sarah pay them a visit after school, which goes innocently enough, until the old woman begins to mutate behind Sarah's back while she's picking out a movie to bring home.

The next morning, the Adlers' terrified dog gets Sarah's attention by jumping up against her family room window, startling Sarah and forcing her outside. Once there, she hears a crashing noise next door and trepidatiously enters the Adler house. Once inside, she slips on some blood before finding the older woman feasting on the neck of Connie, her own daughter, with a mysterious fungus coming out of her mouth. 

They warned us about this.

The curious case of Robert

A notorious and untrustworthy arms dealer, Robert is played by Robin Atkin Downes in the game. He was supposed to sell guns to Joel and Tess—played by Annie Wersching—but it's revealed that he unloaded them elsewhere. This, of course, doesn't sit well with Joel and Tess—so they confront him at his old warehouse in Area 5. 

Once there, Robert tells them that he sold the guns to militia group the Fireflies. Incensed, Tess shoots him in the head and kills him.

Whereas in the series, when we first meet Tess (Torv), she's already dealing with Robert, having been beaten up by a couple of his men. Instead of guns, however, Tess wants the truck battery that Robert sold them. Instead of telling Joel, though, Tess says she'll remain silent about the whole thing if Robert lets her "go home and drink until my face stops hurting."

That's when the room they're in blows up, allowing Tess to escape. 

Joel and Tess vow to hunt down Robert, get the battery and find their way to Joel's brother Tommy (Luna). By the time they find Robert, however, he's already dead after an apparent attack by a member of the infected. He's also lying next to the battery, which no longer works.

At least Tess' hands are clean.


The mission of Joel and Tess

In both the game and the series, the leader of the Fireflies, Marlene—played by Dandridge in the game and series—admits to coercing Robert into giving her the guns and truck battery, respectively, that belonged to Joel and Tess. And, in both cases, she tells them they need to transport the mysterious Ellie—played in the game by Ashley Johnson, played by Ramsey in the series—across the dangerous, violent terrain outside of the quarantine zone.

We've already established that Joel and Tess are on the hunt for a truck battery instead of guns, but a few other details about the journey are different in the series, as well. In the game, Joel and Tess are told once they drop Ellie at "the Capitol building," they can come back and collect their guns. (Tess even goes off on her own before agreeing to make sure the guns actually exist.)

In the series, Joel and Tess are instructed to take Ellie to "the old state house," where they'll not only get a truck battery immediately, but they'll also get an actual truck—plus a bunch of other supplies. 

Where's the subtle flirting?

Let's put an asterisk on this one.

While it's never expressly stated that Joel and Tess were romantically involved in the game, there were certainly hints along the way. For instance, during their trek to confront Robert, Tess tells Joel, "It's like we're on a date." Joel, jokingly, replies, "Well, I am the romantic type." Tess is charmed, saying, "You've got your ways."

There's none of that in the series—at least, not yet. 


New episodes of The Last of Us premiere Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO and are available to stream on HBO Max.

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