Monday was an important day for Neil Druckmann. The cocreator of the beloved postapocalyptic video game The Last of Us had spent about a decade trying to adapt his story of an unlikely duo who band together to survive a harrowing trek across America. Now, finally, he was preparing to attend the glitzy premiere for the nine-episode HBO television adaptation he cocreated with Chernobyl’s Craig Mazin. But first, Druckmann needed to screen the show to another important group of constituents, the employees of Naughty Dog, the video game studio behind The Last of Us and its sequel. “I got to see it with hundreds of my colleagues, many of whom worked on the game for many, many years,” Druckmann tells VF a few days later. “They got to see their work realized, I think, to such a beautiful degree, and they were moved to tears.” One animator emailed Druckmann after the screening, ecstatic that two scenes she’d worked on for the video game had been recreated, shot-for-shot, in the TV show. “That was really special,” says Druckmann.
There’s a lot riding on The Last of Us, and not just for HBO as it attempts to launch a fresh franchise series under new, bottom-line focused owners. Hollywood has tried to turn video game IP into Marvel- and DC-magnitude cash cows for years with few successes. The Last of Us was critically acclaimed when it was released in 2013 and it quickly garnered legions of devoted fans who will be watching the series with a critical eye. But the TV adaptation can’t just pander to gamers. It must also find a way to invite in viewers who never considered playing their way through the PlayStation title, people like Druckmann’s parents. “They don’t play video games but they finally got to experience The Last of Us on their own,” says Druckmann, who brought them to Monday’s premiere.
Tel Aviv–born Druckmann worked his way up from intern to copresident at Naughty Dog, where he also cowrote 2007’s Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. That game broke ground with its stunning visuals and focus on character development, paving the way for the release of The Last of Us a few years later. He originally planned to adapt The Last of Us into a movie with Sam Raimi, but, after that project fell apart, he found a new creative partner in Mazin, a longtime fan of the game. The Last of Us drops viewers into an alternate present-day world, one where 20 years ago, a fungus called Cordyceps laid waste to most of humanity. Joel (Pedro Pascal), a survivor of the Cordyceps outbreak, is tasked with escorting teenage Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across the country, fighting off the infected and relying on help from a cast of side characters—among them Bill and Frank, played by Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett, respectively. The reviews so far have been overwhelmingly positive, with Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson calling it “an unrelentingly dark but steadfastly humane series.” That’s helping Druckmann breathe a little easier heading into The Last of Us’s Sunday night release: “I’m hopeful that our show lands and finds its audience, and we kind of help shift how these adaptations are made.”
Vanity Fair: You started adapting The Last of Us as a movie not long after the game came out. Did you always see the potential to tell this story in another medium?
Neil Druckmann: When we were making The Last of Us, we had already started working on games in a way that was pretty different for big budget games in that we put story first. Back then, you’d have designers creating really fun encounters or fun setups, and then story would come in, like, “here are all these levels, write something to tie them all together.” I think that’s why we got pretty poor stories. Instead, we said with The Last of Us, which was the evolution of a lot of the work we did on Uncharted, what if the whole thing was constructed around a relationship?
The idea of it becoming something else was obvious to people because the structure of it is very much a three-act story. It is episodic in its nature as these characters go through different parts of the U.S., meet a cast of characters and slowly change over time through each one of these mini adventures. But it wasn’t constructed with the idea of ever adapting it, it just leveraged a lot of the things that we’ve learned from other kinds of media. Because of the success of Uncharted, there was a lot of interest in adapting it. Even before we finished the game, we had production companies and studios approach us. And I was very reluctant. I was fearful that this beautiful thing we created at Naughty Dog would turn into one of these poor adaptations that I’ve seen that at times can be embarrassing to the whole industry.
Craig Mazin has said that he felt like he cheated with The Last of Us because the story was already there and he didn’t have to build it out like you would with other video game adaptations.