When video games are adapted into movies or television shows, the results are often less than stellar. Hopes are high that HBO’s "The Last of Us" can buck that trend and deliver an exemplary adaptation of the Naughty-Dog developed video game of the same name. The series is in safe hands with both the game’s original director Neil Druckmann and the creator of HBO’s "Chernobyl" Craig Mazin at the helm. HBO has put a lot of faith in the series, providing the 10-episode first season with a budget right up there with "Game of Thrones" at more than $10 million per episode.
The original PlayStation 3 game was first released in 2013, a full decade before the premiere date of "The Last of Us" television show. Despite this lengthy gap in time, the video game has remained fresh in the minds of many gamers with a remastered edition being released for the PlayStation 4 console and a full remake being released in 2022 for current generation consoles, not to mention the 2020 award-winning sequel and the canonical Dark Horse graphic novel series. Needless to say, "The Last of Us" has remained ever relevant and diehard fans are sure to pick up on little differences between the game and the show. Some of the casting choices have already caused a stir, but how closely do the actors on the TV series really line up with their digital counterparts?
Fans of the video game are bound to have a closer relationship with Joel Miller than any other character in the series. Not only is he the protagonist of the story, but he is also the character controlled by the player for the majority of the game. Pedro Pascal plays Joel in the television series while the character was voiced by Troy Baker in the game. Baker might not be in the lead role anymore, but he is still in the show and has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in the trailer, seeming to be a part of David’s gang. Pascal has proven himself more than capable of helming a television series with starring roles on "The Mandalorian" and "Narcos."
The only notable cosmetic change in Joel is an ethnicity shift away from the game’s Caucasian iteration of Joel to suit Pascal’s Chilean heritage. This switch is unlikely to have any effect on the narrative and falls in line with Neil Druckmann’s commendable focus on increasing diversity whenever possible, which was reflected in "The Last of Us: Part II." When speaking with GQ, Druckmann said that he considers a diverse cast of characters to be as important as any other storytelling or gameplay component. Based on everything we’ve seen thus far, Pascal seems to have nailed Joel’s gruff nature and rugged mannerisms and judging from his unkempt facial hair down to the broken watch that serves as a reminder of his daughter’s death, he looks the part.
Alongside Joel, Ellie Williams is the other main character and the only other person that players control for portions of the game, aside from Sarah for a brief time in the prologue. Ellie is played by Bella Ramsey in the HBO show while she was voiced by Ashley Johnson in the games. Johnson is too old to play the teenage Ellie in a live-action context, but she remains a part of the television series as Anna Williams — the mother of the character she previously voiced.
Ramsey is still early on in her career and is best known for her portrayal of Lyanna Mormont on HBO’s "Game of Thrones," which provided her with her very first role. She has had a few notable roles since, such as a recurring character on "His Dark Materials," but "The Last of Us" is set to become her biggest starring role to date. Although Ramsey is 19 years old, which is five years older than Ellie is in the game, she has a youthful enough appearance to pass for a 14-year-old and more or less matches the look and height of the video game character.
Ramsey looks the part right down to the eyebrow scar, but the one noteworthy visual change from the game is Ramsey’s brunette hair color — Ellie’s hair in the game is auburn. The character is also referred to in dialogue as a "redhead" in the game. Ellie’s hair color had already been a point of confusion amongst fans of the game, and the TV series will likely exacerbate that debate.
Tess is an important character early on in the story of "The Last of Us" throughout the Boston portion of the game, though she does not continue with Ellie and Joel on their cross-country journey. She has both a close personal and professional relationship with Joel, and she is the one who convinces him to transport Ellie all the way to Salt Lake City to get to the Fireflies.
In the TV series, Tess Servopoulos is played by Anna Torv, who is best known for her roles on the shows "Mindhunter" and "Fringe." Torv is no stranger to video games, having earlier provided the voice of the main character in "Heavenly Sword." Torv is Australian, unlike Tess, but she is obviously no stranger to putting on American accents for roles. Visually, Torv seems to capture Tess’ toughness, and her makeup matches Tess’ injuries quite well. In the show, Tess’ hair seems considerably longer, and she’s lacking the trademark black and white bandana that holds her hair up in the game. The red shirt worn by Tess in the game seems to be present, but it’s covered by an outer layer. Overall, it doesn’t seem like the 2023 version of Tess will be a major departure from the Tess of 2013.
In the game, Bill is a memorable side character voiced by W. Earl Brown who only appears in the Lincoln chapter. Casting a household name like Nick Offerman in the role and including him in four episodes instead of just one (assuming IMDb is to be taken literally on the matter) suggests that the series will expand on this portion of the original story. The casting of Murray Bartlett as Frank in four episodes furthers this implication. In the game, Frank is dead by the time players find him, but his backstory subtly reveals him to be Bill’s former romantic partner.
Offerman seems like perfect casting for Bill. The video game version of Bill is a bit more out of shape and generally unkempt than the TV version appears to be, but Offerman is still a decent fit for Bill’s physicality and a great match for his personality and demeanor. Cosmetically, Offerman’s beard is darker and a bit fuller than video-game Bill’s, and his hair is a bit tidier, but the style isn’t far off.
Marlene is a key figure amongst the Fireflies — a paramilitary resistance group of questionable morals. In the game, she is present in Boston and, after being wounded, leaves Ellie in the care of Joel and Tess. She later reemerges near the end of the story when the protagonists finally reach the Firefly base in Salt Lake City. In both the video game and the HBO series, Marlene is played by Merle Dandridge.
While there are a handful of voice actors from the game contributing live-action performance in the TV series, Dandridge is the only actor to play the same character across both mediums. The casting couldn’t possibly get any more authentic than this. Her voice is clearly guaranteed to be 100% accurate to the game and, although the game’s character design wasn’t explicitly modeled after her, she also looks the part. Her wardrobe and hair seem to be a perfect match to the character model as well.
The inclusion of Riley makes it clear that the HBO series isn’t just adapting the base version of "The Last of Us" — it’s tackling the "Left Behind" DLC as well. Riley is mentioned through dialogue in the 2013 game but doesn’t appear until the prequel DLC released a year later. Ellie and Riley are close friends and begin to form a romance until disaster strikes. They are both bitten by the infected at the same time, leading to Riley’s death and the discovery that Ellie is immune to the Cordyceps infection.
In "Left Behind," Riley was voiced by Yaani King Mondschein, who is in her 40s in real life. Since the character is meant to be 16 in the game, a younger actor was obviously needed for the live-action adaptation. Storm Reid, who’s the same age as co-star Bella Ramsey, takes over as Riley in the show. In terms of costuming, the TV version of Riley has added a head wrapping to hold her hair back that wasn’t present in the game. She also wears her hair in a long ponytail, whereas the game character keeps her hair in a tight bun. Her wardrobe has longer sleeves than the game equivalent, but otherwise lines up well, even down to the beaded bracelet on her wrist.
Tommy Miller is Joel’s brother and is a major character in both "The Last of Us" and "The Last of Us: Part II." Just like Joel, Tommy is Caucasian in the video game, but he’s got another ethnicity in the TV show in the spirit of diversity and to line up with leading man Pedro Pascal. In the show, Tommy is played by Gabriel Luna, who is of Mexican descent. Jeffrey Pierce, who voiced Tommy in the video game, is also in the cast of the television series in the major role of Perry, an HBO original character who’s not in the game.
In the video game, the brothers don’t reunite until far into Joel and Ellie’s cross-country journey. Currently, IMDb has Tommy slated to appear in all 10 episodes in the first season. While IMDb isn’t always accurate on such matters, it is clear that Tommy will be a substantially larger character in the show than he was in the first game. Visually, Tommy looks quite different between the mediums; Luna sports a different hair color and style, he is clean shaven as opposed to sporting a full beard like he does in the game. Also, he is free from the scars and blemishes present on his digital counterpart, though that might change as the series progresses. His wardrobe is a direct match for the Tommy of the game with a fluffy collared jean jacket, and he can be seen using a sniper rifle, which is revealed to be a specialty of Tommy’s in "The Last of Us: Part II."
Sarah Miller is Joel’s daughter who meets a heartbreaking end in the opening moments of the game. As she apparently appears in two episodes of the series, it is safe to say that her role has been expanded from the game, possibly in the form of flashbacks. Just like the actors playing her father and uncle, the actor playing the TV version of Sarah is significantly less Caucasian than the video game version of Sarah. The role of Sarah in the TV series is played by Nico Parker, who is the daughter of actor Thandiwe Newton and is of Zimbabwean descent. No mention of Sarah’s mother is ever made in the games, but the TV series could change this; after all, the show is already confirmed to include Ellie’s mother Anna, who was also absent from the games.
At 18 years old, Parker looks a fair bit older than the video-game version of Sarah, who is supposed to be 12 years old. Sarah’s t-shirt in the show is a different color and lacks the long-sleeve layer but seems to be for the same fictional band as in the game — Halican Drops. Eagle-eyed fans noticed that the back of Sarah’s shirt foreshadows almost all of the locations visited in the game. It remains to be seen whether or not the TV keeps this subtle Easter egg intact.
He may only be present in the Pittsburgh portion of the game, but Henry, along with his little brother Sam, leave a massive impression on players during their limited screen-time. Henry is a brief but vital character, and a lot could hinge on the right or wrong casting. Lamar Johnson is portraying the live-action version of Henry, while Brandon Scott lent his voice to the character in the video game. Scott bears a somewhat closer resemblance to the character than Johnson, which likely comes from how Naughty Dog captured full-body performances when making the game for motion-capture and artistic reference.
Lamar Johnson has been a part of a few big film and TV projects like "The Hate U Give" and "Your Honor," but he is likely best known for his abilities as a dancer as displayed on the TV show "The Next Step." The similarities between dancing and fight choreography should give Johnson a leg up when it comes to action sequences. Henry wears multiple layers and an overcoat in the TV series, but he only ever wears a light tank top in the game. This change makes sense for the practicality of it, and his under layer looks to be a match for his tank top from the game, which is a nice touch.
Sam is Henry’s kid brother and the subject of one of the game’s most heartbreaking moments. Fans of the game will know to prepare themselves for the heavy emotions that are sure to follow when the TV show reaches Sam and Henry’s subplot. Sam is played in the show by Keivonn Woodard, and was voiced by Nadji Jeter in the game.
While the actors playing Ellie, Riley, and Sarah are all older than their video game characters, Keivonn Woodard is only actor on the cast who is younger than his game counterpart. At just 9 years old, Woodard is still at the start of his acting career with "The Last of Us" set to be his first major production. The dynamic between Ellie and Sam has the potential to be a bit awkward on-screen if it closely follows the game, since the characters are only separated by one year’s age difference, but Ramsey is just about a full decade older than Woodard.
Woodard is deaf in real life, which is not a trait shared in the video game but will surely factor into his TV scenes. Between this and his younger age, Sam might be quite different in the show, but these differences might make him an even more compelling character.
Robert is a minor antagonist from the opening Boston section of the game. He is a gun runner who double-crosses Joel and Tess and leads to the game’s first action sequences. Though his appearance is limited, his role is vital as he inadvertently serves as the catalyst for Joel and Tess coming into contact with the Fireflies, which leads to Marlene entrusting them to transport Ellie.
The Robert character was played by veteran voice actor Robin Atkin Downes in the video game, while Brendan Fletcher has been brought in to play the live-action version. Not much has been revealed about Fletcher’s appearance as Robert in the TV series as of yet, but Fletcher is more than capable of portraying the role. Most recently, Fletcher left an impression as Krampus in "Violent Night," and has a long track record of supporting roles in successful projects like "The Revenant," "Arrow," and "The Pacific." Robert is a shifty and volatile scumbag, which fits in Fletcher’s versatile wheelhouse.
Many of the enemies in "The Last of Us" video game are interchangeable cannon fodder, but David is a major exception to the rule. Arriving at the tail-end of the game during the winter section in Colorado, David becomes the main villain for a time as the leader of a gang of cannibals who take Ellie captive. In the game, David was voiced by prolific voice actor Nolan North.
In the TV show, David appears to be played by Scott Shepherd, though HBO hasn’t yet announced Shepherd as an official member of the cast. All the same, Shepherd can be seen in the trailer acting out a scene from the game where David stabs a knife down next to Ellie’s head while she lays on a kitchen table, so it is somewhat fair to assume he is playing David or a very similar character.
From the little that has been revealed so far, the costume seems to line up between the game and show. In terms of the color and style of the overcoat, though, the material has been changed from denim to the slicker waterproof material of a conventional winter coat, which makes more sense given the setting and time of year. His hair color has been changed from dark brown to a lighter color that suits Shepherd’s natural hair, and the style is cut much shorter, though he retains the same facial hair. Shepherd bears a subtle but striking resemblance to the game character with a similar face and nose shape and sympathetic eyes that contain a hidden darkness beneath.