Writing for TV: The Last of Us Pilot
If you’ve been online recently, then you’re aware of or at least have heard of The Last of Us. Whether you’re a gamer or not, pretty much everyone is following The Last of Us, making it one of the most talked-about shows in years. There’s a lot to analyze from the show from a writing perspective, such as adaptations, exceeding expectations, and developing something original in a saturated genre.
If you don’t know already, The Last of Us is a post-apocalyptic drama series created by Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann for HBO. It’s based on the 2013 video game developed by Naughty Dog and is twenty years into a global pandemic caused by a mass fungal infection.
We follow Joel (Pedro Pascal), a smuggler tasked with escorting the teenage Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across the post-apocalyptic United States. With the show gaining more acclaim and attention as it goes on, what can we learn from the show—specifically its pilot—as writers?
Still from 'The Last of Us'. Photo credit: Entertainment Weekly
Adapting Video Games
The biggest hurdle for The Last of Us is getting over the general attitude toward video game adaptations. I’m sure you’re well aware that many people look down on or have a strange reaction toward anything that comes from a video game. In their defense, video game adaptations don’t have the best history.
There are plenty of video game adaptations that have gotten through to audiences and critics, so I don’t think the criticisms are completely valid. It’s not fair to regard The Last of Us as the first good video adaptation. That discredits so many of the adaptations that are good and worth analyzing.
Regardless, from a writing perspective, adapting anything is challenging enough, and it’s elevated more when it’s from a universally beloved source material. The Last of Us has the advantage of using one of the video game’s creators, Neil Druckmann, but that’s not the only reason it works out so well.
Staying True to Source Material vs Creating Something New
If The Last of Us can teach writers an important writing lesson, it’s the ability to demonstrate staying true to the source material while creating something new. Of the episodes that have aired so far, the first is definitely the closest to the game. That’s probably intentional, so people get onboard right away and don’t fear HBO is only using the game’s popularity to gain an audience.
There are some slight deviations as there are with any adaptation, but starting with Joel’s backstory allows us to connect with the main character very well. We get to see Joel who he was before the apocalypse goes down while we follow him as the world turns.
Furthermore, the show beautifully doesn’t rely on the knowledge of the game to tell the story. Someone who has never played the game will enjoy it as much as someone who is a die-hard fan. Much of that comes down to the writing, not spoon-feeding the audience, but knowing what to explain.
Finding the Right Actors
Finding the right actors isn’t usually on the writer. However, it’s something to keep in mind, especially when adapting a popular IP. At the very least, you can have descriptions of the characters and general requirements for the actors, so they fit the character well.
I imagine The Last of Us had a few people in mind while developing the show because the actors seem to fit the characters so well. A lot of that could just be a result of casting. Still, since the video game co-creator Neil Druckmann had a hand, I imagine they had some actors in mind beforehand.
Writing with the Right Tone in Mind
The reason so many people can get behind The Last of Us is the show’s ability to write with the right tone in mind. It’s easy for the concept of the show to get compared to shows with a similar premise, like The Walking Dead. However, right from the start, The Last of Us feels entirely separate from those shows.
For starters, we don’t see the infected in mass swarms right away as The Walking Dead presented them. Instead, it focuses on the characters and in the pilot’s case, how Joel ends up where he is in current times. It makes for much better character analysis and sets it up as a story that’s more character-driven rather than another zombie apocalypse-type show.
Understanding the Pressure
I can’t fathom the amount of pressure the creators of the show felt leading up to its debut. The Last of Us is one of the most beloved stories ever. Pairing that with the general perception of video game adaptations, the creators definitely understood the task they had ahead of them.
Fortunately, it ended up panning out, and much of that comes down to the writing. As great as the directing, acting, practical effects, and set designing have been, none of that matters without the right writing to back it up. It’s a reminder that at the end of the day, writing is the most vital task in developing a show.