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

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The season finale of HBO’s The Last of Us (TLOU) aired on Sunday, capping off one of gaming’s most successful runs (so far). The quality and popularity of adaptations is generally increasing. But unlike previous adaptations, The Last of Us achieved a new level of success on both of these criteria.

The Last of Us was able to capture Joel and Ellie’s struggle for survival and present it authentically to a new audience. The quality wasn’t perfect though – slight dings on the front. — It is undeniable that the show pleased both fans and newcomers. According to Parrot Analytics, The Last of Us was the most-watched show worldwide from its January 15 premiere until March 11, 2023.

Quality and creator involvement

The Last of Us has been a huge 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 a gaming IP. But to really succeed, HBO’s claim needed to be built on that solid foundation.

HBO carefully managed the project and worked closely with Neil Druckman, co-chairman of Naughty Dog and creator of TLOU, to create the show. Druckman served as writer and executive producer for the adaptation. Likewise, many of the game’s original voice actors made cameos throughout the series.


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

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

Missed opportunities

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

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

The transition to a new environment compounded this problem. In the game, you (mostly) play as Joel and must actively protect Ellie. The game itself strengthens the bond between these characters as you participate in the story. This is simply not possible for passive viewers.

Given that there’s another game to adapt, the perfect middle ground of a limited number of infected and finding Joel’s brother, I think the show would have benefited from splitting the first game into two seasons.

The Last of Us reached new fans

Despite the distilled nature of the show, TLOU has been a huge success. According to Parrot Analytics, which specializes in measuring demand for TV series, The Last of Us was a major hit.

“The Last of Us has undoubtedly achieved mainstream success, being the number one show worldwide for the last 60 days (January 11-March 11, 2023). Global audience demand for the show grew steadily throughout the first season, suggesting that it was successful in attracting more mainstream audiences who knew little about the game among franchise fans,” said a Parrot Analytics representative.

During this period, TLOU was 90.01 times more in demand than the worldwide average, at a maximum of 134 times. This was well ahead of other hits such as Game of Thrones (71.9 times) and The Mandalorian (64.9 times).

Notably, this excludes the finals, which could increase the demand event, especially for those who will be playing the entire series. HBO said the finale drew 8.2 million telecasts 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 peak of 152.38x average demand, TLOU grew over time. Some of this difference can be attributed to different platforms and release schedules. The Witcher Season 1 was released all at once on Netflix, and The Last of Us was released weekly on HBO.

More importantly, demand for TLOU trumped demand for both Arcane and Halo. All three shows had exceptional demand, reaching the top 0.2% of all shows. However, it seems The Last of Us managed to tap into the mainstream zeitgeist on another level.

HBO's The Last of Us claim against House of Dragons
Demand for The Last of Us compared to Dragon House

This is even clearer when TLOU is compared to HBO’s Dragon House. The Game of Thrones prequel had a much larger audience, which explains its high initial demand. However, the shows were practically tied by the end of the season.

While the show isn’t perfect, The Last of Us has set a new benchmark for game-to-TV adaptations. The series does a good job of translating the game’s themes to a wider audience. In turn, TLOU became a mainstream hit. Even though awards season is over in 2023, I wouldn’t be surprised to see TLOU get new nominations next year.

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