HBO’s The Last of Us sets new bar for game-to-TV adaptations

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The season finale for HBO’s The Last of Us (TLOU) aired on Sunday, concluding one of gaming’s most successful game adaptions (for now). Both the quality and popularity of adaptations are on the rise overall. But unlike previous adaptations, The Last of Us achieved a new level of success on both of these metrics.

The Last of Us was able to capture Joel and Ellie’s struggle for survival and present it authentically to a new audience. While the quality wasn’t perfect — mild spoilers ahead! — it’s undeniable that the show pleased both fans and newcomers. According to Parrot Analytics, The Last of Us was the most in-demand show globally from its January 15 premiere to March 11, 2023.

Quality and Creator involvement

The Last of Us has a been a major success for both Sony and Naughty Dog largely due to the story. As a result, the game is a strong choice for any studio looking to adapt gaming IP. But to truly succeed, HBO’s take needed to execute on that strong foundation.

HBO handled the project with care and worked closely with Neil Druckmann, co-president of Naughty Dog and creator of TLOU, to create the show. Druckmann served as a writer and executive producer for the adaptation. Similarly, the many of the game’s original voice actors made cameo appearances through out the series.


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This collaboration between the original creative team and Hollywood seems to be the secret ingredient for both The Last of Us and other game adaptations.

Judging by the show’s success, it’s clear that the adaptation gripped audiences just like its game counterpart. The actors — particularly Pedro Pascal as Joel — sell the narrative and the themes of grief and parenthood. However, I do have some gripes about the show.

Missed opportunities

While I thoroughly enjoyed TLOU’s first season, I can’t help but question the decision to adapt the first game in one season. The relationship between Ellie and Joel is the cornerstone for the series. A single nine episode season was barely enough to build this relationship — especially when two of those episodes are devoted to flashbacks.

The main story for TLOU will take players roughly 20 hours to complete with plenty of opportunities to expand on the source material. I understand the desire to end on Joel’s final morally grey decision, but the show tries to develop a complex relationship at a breakneck pace.

The switch to a new medium compounded this issue. In the game, you (mostly) play as Joel and must actively protect Ellie. The gameplay itself reinforces the bond between these characters because you participate in the narrative. This simply isn’t the possible for passive TV viewers.

Given that there’s only one more game to adapt, a limited number of infected featured, and the perfect mid-point of finding Joel’s brother, I think the show would have benefited splitting the first game into two seasons.

The Last of Us reached new fans

Despite the distilled nature of the show, TLOU has been wildly successful. According to Parrot Analytics, who specialize in measuring demand for TV series, The Last of Us was a mainstream hit.

“The Last of Us without a doubt achieved mainstream success, being the number one show in the world over the last 60 days (Jan 11-Mar 11, 2023). Global audience demand for the show steadily grew over the course of its season one run, suggesting it successfully brought more mainstream audiences who knew little to nothing about the game into the franchise’s fandom,” said a Parrot Analytics spokesperson.

In this timeframe, TLOU was 90.01-times more in-demand than the average show globally, with a peak of 134-times. This was well ahead of other hits like Game of Thrones (71.9-times) and The Mandalorian (64.9-times).

Notably, this excludes the finale which could drive demand event higher — especially for those who will binge the entire series. HBO said the finale drew a series high of 8.2 million people on TV, despite airing against the Oscars.

The Last of Us HBO demand vs game adaptations
Demand for The Last of Us compared to other game adaptations

TLOU really shines when compared to other game adaptations. While it failed to eclipse The Witcher season 1’s peak of 152.38-times average demand, TLOU grew over time. Part of this difference can be attributed to different platforms and release schedules. The Witcher season 1 was released all at once on Netflix while The Last of Us released weekly on HBO.

More importantly, demand for TLOU trounced the demand for both Arcane and Halo. All three shows were exceptionally in demand, reaching the top 0.2% of all shows. However, it seems that The Last of Us was able to break into the mainstream zeitgeist on another level.

HBO's The Last of Us demand vs House of the Dragon
Demand for The Last of Us compared to House of the Dragon

This is more clear when TLOU is compared to HBO’s House of the Dragon. The Game of Thrones prequel had a much higher built-in audience which explains its higher initial demand. However, the shows were virtually tied by the end of the season.

While the show isn’t perfect, The Last of Us set a new bar for game-to-tv adaptations. The series translates the game’s themes well for a broader audience. In turn, TLOU became a mainstream hit. While awards season is done for 2023, I won’t be surprised when TLOU gets a new nominations next year.

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