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The Last Of Us Video Game Creator Neil Druckmann Reveals His Approach To Adapting His Magnum Opus For TV

A decade after the global success of the video game "The Last of Us," creator Neil Druckmann's dream of adapting the events of his game for the screen has finally become a reality. It's been a bumpy ride for Druckmann, though, as the 2013 game was initially optioned in 2014 to become a theatrical film under the auspices of legendary "Evil Dead" trilogy director Sam Raimi. However, while Druckmann felt comfortable with Raimi handling his baby, his creative differences with studio executives caused plans for the film to fall by the wayside (via The New Yorker).

Now, thanks to the involvement of writer-producer Craig Mazin — the Emmy Award-winning creator of the riveting HBO limited series "Chernobyl" — Druckmann has finally realized his vision for "The Last of Us" in a nine-episode series for HBO and HBO Max. However, as Druckmann has discovered, there's a much different process involved in creating video games versus adapting the narrative of games for live-action TV — but he is happy to take on the challenge.

Druckmann loves being surprised by his collaborators

The storyline for "The Last of Us" series is primarily rooted in the video game's post-apocalyptic narrative. At the heart of the story are people fighting for survival amid a surge of zombie-like maniacs whose brains have been infected with a virus born of the Cordyceps fungus. The pandemic, however, has also resulted in a breakdown in society, leading to a heavy-handed totalitarian structure that has sparked resistance against their rule.

Amid the madness, though, is hope for a cure, since teenager Ellie Williams (Bella Ramsey) is miraculously immune to the virus. Ellie can't venture out on her own, though, so survivalist Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal) has taken on the treacherous duty of transporting the teen across the dangerous environs of what remains of America.

During a digital roundtable press event attended by Looper, Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin — who serve as co-showrunners on "The Last of Us" — detailed the intricacies of adapting a video game into a series. Noting the "massive undertaking" that went into creating both, Druckmann expressed his gratitude for his collaborators across the board. "To me, part of the fun, the journey of making a thing like this, is being surprised by the people you've teamed up with," Druckmann said. "And I feel so extremely lucky in my career that I got to make the game at Naughty Dog with the best game developers in the world. And now, I get to do it with Craig and all these people from HBO, and this amazing crew that loves the source material and are the best at what they do."

Collaborating with Mazin opened a whole new world of possibilities for Druckmann

The biggest difference between the production of "The Last of Us" as a video game and series for Neil Druckmann was that he was sole writer on the original project but invited Craig Mazin to help write the series.

"Part of the joy for me was just letting go of the wheel a little bit and trusting Craig, this person whose writing I admire, and to say, 'What are some ideas you want to come up with?' and from the game, 'What was exciting for you?'" Druckmann recalled during the roundtable event.

The interesting thing about doing a series version, Druckmann added, was that he was able to include material that never made it into the video game. As a huge fan of the game, Mazin became excited by the possibilities, leading to more story ideas for the show. "I would tell him, 'Here's a bunch of stuff that was written that for whatever reason we couldn't make in the game, or we had other ideas for other DLCs [downloadable content], and we couldn't develop those,'" Druckmann shared.

Druckmann said was inspired by the possibilities the new material presented, and that inspiration was infectious. "I would be inspired by his inspiration, and then we [went] down the road and started exploring it," Druckmann said of his co-showrunner. "Slowly but surely [we started] expanding that world and expanding these characters [beyond the] viewpoints other than just purely Joel and Ellie, which is what happens in the game."

"The Last of Us" premieres on HBO and begins streaming on HBO Max Sunday, January 15, with new episodes debuting Sundays through March 12.