How ‘The Last of Us’ Plans to Bring the Zombie Genre Back to Life
Inside HBO's zombie apocalypse plan: A new drama starring 'Game of Thrones' veterans Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey from 'Chernobyl' creator Craig Mazin that aims to overcome Hollywood's legacy of weak video game adaptations and become a monster hit. "We put all of ourselves into this."
Craig Mazin looks exasperated.
The Last of Us showrunner just finished a marathon press junket for his upcoming HBO zombie drama, and every reporter that trotted into his hotel suite asked him the same question. “Literally all day long,” he marvels. “Over and over. They even phrased it the same way.”
The question: What are the challenges of adapting a video game?
Which is fine, as questions go. But it’s actually the polite version of the real question, which is this: Can you make a dramatic adaptation of a video game that doesn’t disappoint like all the rest of them have?
After all, Hollywood has been attempting to alchemize games into movies and TV shows for decades — from Street Fighter to Doom to Halo to Assassin’s Creed. And aside from a few kid-targeted titles like Sonic franchise, the result has been billions of pixels of meh.
In this case, however, the answer to the question Mazin kept being asked should be clear to anybody who played 2013’s cinematic The Last of Us, which follows a hard-case survivor named Joel tasked with smuggling special “cargo” — a teenage girl named Ellie — across a postapocalyptic, zombie-filled former United States.
“The way to break the video game curse is to adapt the best video game story ever — not by a little, but by a lot,” Mazin says. “So I flat-out cheated.”
The Last of Us’ complex, emotionally wrenching storyline seems ideal for a debut season of television. The series, co-produced by Sony and premiering Jan. 15, is toplined by two Game of Thrones veterans — Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey — and could very well become HBO’s Next Big Thing at a time when competition for the prestige TV streaming crown is fiercer than ever and belt-tightening cuts have made every major series launch really count. But it was a minor miracle the game was made in the first place, and now it’s become a show that somehow must get everything right — or risk becoming the gaming industry’s biggest Hollywood disappointment yet.
THE ASSIGNMENT WAS to pitch a zombie story for a computer class at Carnegie Mellon in 2004. The project’s judge was legendary director George Romero, who made 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, a film widely credited with spawning the zombie genre. And a computer science student named Neil Druckmann thought he had a decent idea.
Taking inspiration from a two-character PlayStation 2 game called Ico and the character John Hartigan (Frank Miller’s tough protagonist from Sin City), Druckmann sketched a story of a man who lost his daughter and a girl who lost her father, who team up.
Druckmann’s professor pitched the idea to Romero. “And he didn’t like it,” recalls Druckmann, still looking amused and mildly surprised after all these years. “He picked something else.”
The idea languished; Druckmann’s career didn’t. He was hired by acclaimed gaming company Naughty Dog and worked his way up to land the plum gig of co-lead designer and co-writer on the first sequel to the Indiana Jones-like adventure game Uncharted. The result, 2009’s Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, was a massive hit, and Druckmann found himself in the enviable position of being able to pick his next project. He returned to his zombie idea, which he had fleshed out into a graphic novel.
“Zombie survival horror” is an easy way to categorize The Last of Us (and there are indeed terrifying ex-human “clickers” controlled by a parasitic fungus that was mutated by global warming roaming about). But it’s also a reductive description. Druckmann’s influences are relationship stories set against apocalyptic backgrounds, such as the film Children of Men and the novel City of Thieves by David Benioff (of Game of Thrones fame).
“We wanted to do the opposite of Resident Evil — which I love, but it’s so over-the-top and you’re fighting giant spiders and it’s all about enemy variety,” Druckmann says. “What if it’s about intimate relationships — an exploration of the unconditional love a parent feels for their child and the beautiful things that could come out of that and the really horrible things that could come out of that?”
A professional reviewer was brought in play a beta version (the gaming industry equivalent of having a test screening). Like Romero, they found The Last of Us underwhelming. Why weren’t there more “boss fights”? Why weren’t the weapons more exotic, such as laser guns? The title was to be Naughty Dog’s first adult-rated game, which might limit its audience. Now experienced players were suggesting it wasn’t what they wanted.
“I was working on my dream game,” Druckmann says. “I was like, ‘They’re never going to let me do this again.’ I wanted to fail on my own terms. So there was no compromise.”
When The Last of Us was released on PlayStation 3 in 2013, it became the fastest-selling game in years and was heralded as one of the finest ever made, the game and its sequel eventually selling more than 37 million copies. Among the many industry assumptions that the game overturned was the notion that a non-sexualized female protagonist would hinder sales. Hollywood was interested. “One production company said, ‘You guys are really good with gameplay, we’ll take the story from here and refine it,’ ” Druckmann says. “I’m like, ‘They don’t respect what’s there. They just see it as a marketing opportunity.’ ”
Druckmann eventually developed his own movie adaptation with Screen Gems; Sam Raimi was attached to direct. Yet he struggled to compress the game’s roughly 15 hours of play into a feature-length narrative. “Sam gave really solid notes, but it was an impossible task,” he says. Druckmann was also told to add more spectacular action set pieces — “Think World War Z” — which was precisely the opposite of the game’s character-driven road-trip vibe.
Druckmann began hoping his film version would die. Eventually, he got his wish. The rights reverted back to Naughty Dog, where Druckmann was on his way to co-president. He figured an adaptation wasn’t going to happen. Then he saw HBO’s Chernobyl.
TO PUT CRAIG MAZIN’S CAREER in video game terms, he’d been doing screenwriting on “hard mode” for decades. He worked in the feature comedy writing and punch-up space, earning credits on the Hangover and Scary Movie franchises (plus uncredited work on so many projects that he’s lost count). He turned his experiences into a popular screenwriting podcast with John August (Scriptnotes) and gave his writer-producer friends David Benioff and Dan Weiss one of the more notable critiques in TV development history after they showed him their original train-wreck pilot for Game of Thrones: “You guys have a massive problem.” (Taking his advice, they reshot it.)
Chernobyl was the first project Mazin considered truly his own. The gripping limited series about the 1986 Soviet Union nuclear plant disaster earned Mazin an HBO overall deal and won 10 Emmys. Compared to grinding out joke-a-minute comedy scripts, Mazin has quipped that Chernobyl was the easiest thing he ever wrote.
When Druckmann saw Chernobyl, with its grounded atmospheric tension and depiction of a struggle for survival and moral clarity amid a fallout Exclusion Zone, he could suddenly envision how The Last of Us might look and feel as a TV show.
Set up by a mutual friend, actress Shannon Woodward, Druckmann and Mazin had lunch in Santa Monica to feel each other out. Druckmann comes across chill and contemplative. Mazin is passionate and loquacious. Yet the duo meshed on the broad strokes of The Last of Us as a potential HBO drama.
“What would this process look like?” Druckmann asked tentatively.
“We go across the street,” Mazin replied, projecting full confidence. “I tell HBO I want this to be our next project. And we make it!”
In truth, Mazin’s level of certainty wasn’t quite so high. He says he had emailed the network’s chairman and CEO, Casey Bloys: “Please let me do this. Please, please, please …”
The gaming guru and the Hollywood screenwriter sat down with Bloys, HBO drama head Francesca Orsi and producer Carolyn Strauss. Druckmann had zero expectations, other than that he’d have to explain his game to some studio executives for the millionth time.
“Then Craig just launches into the game’s story from the beginning,” Druckmann recalls. “And I’m like, ‘Do I jump in?’ And I’m like, ‘What if I do nothing?’ ”
Mazin dramatically unspooled a tale of parental love amid a treacherous wasteland, ever mindful of one of his hard-earned industry lessons: Don’t pitch plot, pitch passion.
Druckmann leaned back and folded his arms, stunned. “He’s such a good storyteller, I was finding myself emotionally moved by a story that — for all intents and purposes — I shouldn’t be moved by anymore,” he says. “I realized that this is what I got wrong every other time — I didn’t have the right partner.”
HBO bought The Last of Us in the room.
Admits Bloys: “I’m not a gamer; the last video game I played was on ColecoVision.” (The game: Smurf: Rescue in Gargamel’s Castle). “My mind wasn’t on whether video game adaptations in the past have failed. I approached this as: Is it a great TV show? And I loved [Danny Boyle’s 2002 zombie film] 28 Days Later. So the idea that Craig wanted to do a big genre show was not a hard sell for me.”
The newly minted showrunner partners got to work writing a first season, taking turns on the scripts, and casting. The toughest role to fill, they knew, would be the girl at the center of everything: an adult actress who could convincingly play a 14-year-old that the gaming world had fallen in love with — and had very firm ideas about.
BELLA RAMSEY WAS SUPPOSED to have only one scene on Game of Thrones. The English actor was 11 years old when she shot her professional acting debut in the fantasy hit as the ferocious Lady Lyanna Mormont. Yet she was such a scene-stealer that the showrunners brought the character back for the final two seasons.
Ramsey, now 19, went on to roles in several other genre projects, like HBO’s fantasy drama His Dark Materials and the medieval comedy movie Catherine Called Birdy. But when she had the chance to audition for The Last of Us, she hesitated.
Ramsey was once asked her zombie apocalypse strategy and said she’d “probably just dig myself a hole, crawl into it.” The prospect of being the lead of an HBO series with millions of preexisting fans around the world made Ramsey feel the same way.
“I seriously considered that maybe I don’t want to be famous so I’m not going to do this show because it’s going propel me to a place I don’t want to go to in terms of being seen and being known,” Ramsey says. “I like to blend in and hide.”
Finding Ellie had always been a high bar. The show needed somebody who could appear “tough and vulnerable and wise beyond [their] years and also have a potential for violence,” Druckmann says. They saw “dozens and dozens” for the part. Ramsey’s Thrones co-star Maisie Williams had a chat with Druckmann about the movie adaptation very early on. Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart) even did a table read. By the time the HBO series came along, any former possible candidates had aged out of consideration, so the search had to be reset.
When Mazin watched Ramsey’s tape, he says, he was instantly all in. “Bella felt so real,” Druckmann agreed. “It was like Ellie realized in live action. It didn’t feel like watching an actor.” Mazin reached out to Benioff and Weiss, who assured them that Ramsey was “an absolute joy on set” in every episode she appeared in.
Ramsey went from audition to securing the role in less than a month — lightning fast for a non-household name vying for the lead in a tentpole project.
Yet when she arrived at the show’s set in Alberta, Ramsey initially had a rough time, sitting in COVID quarantine for two weeks, spiraling. “What am I doing here?” Ramsey recalls thinking. “ ‘You’ve chosen the wrong person’ — all of that goes around in your head.” Her predicament was like how viewers first meet Ellie in the series — a prisoner chained in a room for weeks, worried about what comes next.
The internet, being the internet, didn’t help. Ellie had been fan-casted for a decade and some cruelly picked apart all the ways they assumed Ramsey was wrong for the role. Ramsey pledged not to look at the comments, then looked anyway.
“I’ve seen everything,” Ramsey says, with a note of steely and fuck you all defiance familiar to anyone who watched Lyanna Mormont dress down Jon Snow. “I’m aware of all of it. It was my first experience, really, with a lot of negative reactions.”
What kept Ramsey going was her reason for taking the role in the first place. “Ellie felt like a character I already had in me,” Ramsey says. “Like the skins that you wear in a video game? She was one of my skins already.”
IT DIDN’T TAKE ANY EFFORT for producers to imagine Pedro Pascal in the role of Joel, the game’s stoic, action-ready hero. The 47-year-old Chilean American had already become a TV fan favorite playing empathic tough-guy characters on Game of Thrones (his breakout performance as season four’s swaggering Prince Oberyn Martell), Netflix’s Narcos (starring as a DEA agent for two seasons) and Disney+’s The Mandalorian (playing the helmeted title character).
When Mazin sent Pascal the Last of Us script, the actor says, he wanted the part so badly it literally scared him that it might not work out. Playing a warrior protecting a special young ward on a journey across a dangerous fantasy landscape on a prestige TV show sounded terrific. The only potential hiccup was that he was kind of already doing that.
“We talked about the fact that he was in The Mandalorian,” Mazin says. “And you can do the math like: Mandalorian = Joel; Baby Yoda = … but then you realize, actually, no. It’s not the same. The Mandalorian is interacting with a mute, adorable creature — and I love that show. But interacting with a teenager is complicated. Also, the fact they have him covered in a helmet is a huge factor.”
Pascal was conscious of the comparison as well, but it didn’t deter his interest.
“It definitely came to mind,” he says. “As I [got familiar with the game], I noticed there are so many things I’ve seen that visually or thematically reference The Last of Us. Like [the 2017 X-Men movie] Logan. And yes, the trope has been used in so many different ways — you can go back to [the manga series] Lone Wolf and Cub, you can go to Paper Moon. But as far as Mandalorian and The Last of Us existing in close proximity, for me, it’s the best double-dipping I could possibly imagine.”
Still, the actor had to get permission from the Mandalorian producers, who “very generously” allowed him to work on a rival company’s project. The situation was likely aided by the fact that his Star Wars character is physically played by more than one actor, allowing Pascal to simply dub dialogue in postproduction.
“[Producers] Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni are creatively not limiting themselves to the way things are normally done,” Pascal says, choosing his words carefully. “We’ve improvised making myself available for whatever they need. I hesitate revealing anything because I don’t want any plot surprises to be spoiled.”
Yet even Pascal’s casting came with a bit of uproar. Mazin says fans griped that the actor cannot grow a full beard, which just shows the level of fidelity some expect. “You’re laughing, but for some people that’s a serious deal-breaker for them!” Mazin says. “They’re like, ‘Oh my God, he can’t even have the same beard as Joel in the game.’ ”
Pascal and Ramsey were a bit apprehensive about what came next: getting stuck with mainly the same scene partner for nearly a year of filming, especially given their age difference and the show’s intimate father-daughter dynamic. They’d never had a chemistry read or even spoken. Instead — and with some degree of shared cringe — the duo first met on the production’s sexual harassment prevention Zoom call. Later, Pascal reached out to Ramsey’s mother and the actor to get their working relationship going, and recalls thinking in that awkward moment: “How am I going to text a 17-year-old?”
Once on set in Calgary, the duo faced extreme weather (dipping down to minus 20 degrees at one point) and became an odd-couple pairing that couldn’t help but mimic their onscreen relationship to some extent, especially with the season shot in largely chronological order. “Nothing was easy, it was super hard,” Pascal says. “Long hours, rough material, and we were both scared about meeting people’s expectations.”
When interacting with each other, there was some fear, Pascal says. “You know, ‘Will they like me?’ Ultimately that fed into the characters because of how grumpy pants Joel is and how ultimately smarter-than-everyone-else Ellie is.”
Their biggest shared stress was pulling off certain moments from the game. Ramsey recalls ruminating about one iconic scene for months. “I would wake up in the night thinking about it,” she says. “I’d lose sleep over it because I felt like I could have done it better.”
Pascal advises, more than a little Yoda-like, that feelings of satisfaction are deceptive, anyway. “You walk away satisfied from something, a rare thing, and you could be right or you could be wrong,” he tells Ramsey. “The results are what the results are.”
It’s not surprising that when asked for his zombie apocalypse strategy, Pascal replies, “to find somebody like Bella.” I point out the actor frequently plays protective figures in his roles.
“There is something interesting there,” Pascal agrees. “You start to recognize a thread between your characters that you didn’t necessarily look for, but got cast in. I don’t have kids. I’ve only learned through these characters how painfully vulnerable one becomes and how much your life depends on their life being OK. It’s a fun fantasy to fulfill, and I’ll play as many dads as I can get.”
WHILE THE LAST OF US doesn’t face the same amount of pressure as, for instance, House of the Dragon as a make-or-break title for HBO (and costs less than Dragon’s sub-$20 million per-episode budget), Bloys points out that the drama is unusual in the way the entire series hinges on whether Pascal and Ramsey can convince viewers their onscreen relationship is genuine. “If those two don’t work, the show doesn’t work,” Bloys says. “But I think it’s pretty clear from the beginning they’re both incredibly soulful and give extraordinary performances. The love that has to develop between these two characters for you to care was there in spades.”
The Last of Us doesn’t merely fulfill the promise of elevated survival horror, but it also does a trick that HBO seems to regularly pull off: Just when you think you know exactly what the show is, there’s an episode that rises well above expectation. In this case, this head-turning hour arrives early, with its third episode. No spoilers, but it involves a fan-favorite character from the game — a hard-core survivalist named Bill (Nick Offerman) — and some radical changes to the game’s story that will shock and perhaps challenge fans.
The deviation won’t be the show’s last, but overall the series is highly faithful to the game, with much of the dialogue intact and many familiar settings rendered precisely into reality. Still, Druckmann and Mazin worry, like Ramsey and Pascal, about letting fans down. For Druckmann, his concern isn’t just about the fate of the show, but public perception of his entire industry.
“People see bad adaptations and it adds credence to the idea that games are childish,” he says. “I love the idea that someone could watch this and be moved by it and then be like, ‘Wait, that’s based on the video game?’”
Adds Mazin: “I don’t want to see the story done poorly any more than [the game’s fans] do. Give us the chance, I think they will be just as rewarded — in a different way, but just as rewarded.”
One of those rewards is the show’s vein of dark, dry humor. Since the end of Thrones, fantasy TV has attempted to replicate its blockbuster success, only with a more gravely solemn style.
“I’m an existentialist, and I think part of being human is pointing out how fucking absurd this all is,” Mazin says. “In a dire situation, humor is where you hang on to your humanity.”
The show also doesn’t stay embedded in its ruinous present. The narrative spends a fair amount of time flashing back to events surrounding the initial outbreak — the “world is falling apart” roller coaster that most postapocalyptic shows skip quickly past.
“I’m not … how do I put this?” Mazin says, hesitating, and then deciding to say it anyway: “I’m not interested in the zombies! I care about people … and one of the nice things about television is you get to begin and end [characters’ stories] over and over again, and beginnings and endings are the best.”
As for this show’s ending, expect the debut season to cover the entirety of the Last of Us game. Druckmann and Mazin hint — but don’t outright say — that their second season will cover the table-flipping narrative of Naughty Dog’s bold Part II sequel (“I don’t like filler,” Mazin says). Part II cannot be described without spoilers, but it caused such an uproar that Druckmann received death threats.
Likewise, Druckmann cannot reveal whether a rumored Part III game from Naughty Dog is coming, but says: “I think there’s more story to tell.” Either way, Druckmann isn’t worried about falling into the same trap faced by Game of Thrones, when the HBO drama famously surpassed author George R.R. Martin’s source material. “We have no plans to tell any stories beyond adapting the games,” he says. “We won’t run into the same issue as Game of Thrones since Part II doesn’t end on a cliffhanger.”
Indeed, neither Mazin nor Druckmann want a show that’s season after season of weary survivors trudging endlessly through decaying buildings wary of mushroom zombies — that would be an undead fate all its own.
“I don’t have any interest in a spinning-plates-go-on-forever show,” Mazin says. (He doesn’t say “like The Walking Dead” here, but I do.) “When it becomes a perpetual motion machine, it just can’t help but get kind of … stupid. Endings mean everything to me.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.