The Last of Us looks a lot like the video game that inspired it, but don’t mistake that for damning it with faint praise. The HBO series’ weathered apocalyptic look is often lifted straight from a game known for looking cinematic and full even at its most ruthless and brutal. Everything is captured with excruciating detail, including Joel, played now by Pedro Pascal. But in The Last of Us TV show, Joel isn’t quite the man he was — and that’s by design.
Some of that is just practical: As part of translating the game to TV, co-creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann had to update the ways in which Joel was interacting with his environment.
“There are certain things that we embrace about our medium that are different than the game medium. In the game, you need a healing mechanic; you get shot a lot, you have to heal. You get shot once in reality,” Mazin laughs.
Dispelling that means showing all the damage a guy like Joel had taken on, physically and emotionally, after Sarah died. His knuckles stay bloody, and his body seems to hurt. Pascal’s Joel isn’t sneaking around the same way Joel does in the game. “Joel’s walking in a crouch so much that he would have, like, these massive quads, right?” Mazin says. “55-year-olds can’t crouch for more than like three minutes! Tops! And then their back gives out.
“So embracing frailty […] I think helps pull people into this kind of immersion, which is different than the video game immersion.”
That also means tweaking — ever so slightly — Joel’s character. With a long, arduous journey ahead of him, the Joel on TV has a different path to walk than his character. And viewers who have played the game might spot key differences in his TV counterpart: He’s no longer dealing weapons like he does in the game, but trying to hunt down a battery for his car so he can go find Tommy.
“In the game, due to gameplay, Joel has to be extremely capable to justify all the actions you’re doing, and there’s certain things we’re doing in the game to get you to connect to him by being him,” Druckmann tells Polygon. “And that was part of the casting of Pedro Pascal as Joel. […] We were less looking for someone who could play a tough guy — because in some ways, that’s the easier part — and more someone that could show there’s a tortured soul inside of it.”
The Last of Us’ first episode sets up that struggle for Joel, between the lighter sides of his heart and the massive grief, pain, and violence that defines his life now. In a way he is softer, a choice that will certainly play into the ending of the first game, which has earned its rep for being fairly divisive. It’s hard to imagine the game’s Joel — so often defined by his brutal, thawing apathy — help a fellow worker out when they’re too overwhelmed to move a child’s body to the pyre this early in the story.
It’s there that Pascal proved to be key to Mazin and Druckmann’s vision of who Joel needed to be in HBO’s The Last of Us conception of a hardened but a little more human than his game counterpart.
“Pedro is so charismatic, and there’s like a pull — he’s funny, he’s a genuinely funny guy — that to suppress all that when you watch him on screen, it feels like there’s something missing from this guy, and you want it to come out,” Druckmann says. “We obviously see a lot of it in the beginning and his interaction with Sarah. […] And then when all that goes away, and then over time, you get to see hints of it coming back out, it becomes really fascinating to follow this guy, this really damaged guy.”
Pascal remembers the one note he’d get was “to remember to bring [himself] to it as much as possible.”
“That was the way to understand Joel best was, you know, with my own heart,” Pascal says. “I found him to be a very hardened person, and not somebody who reflects on his own feelings, even before losing his daughter or the world ending before his very eyes. And that loss kind of calcifying and shaping who he is, and how he survives thereafter.”
The Last of Us premiered on HBO and HBO Max on Jan. 15. New episodes of the nine-episode season air on Sundays.