Why Sony's The Last of Us Movie Failed, Explained by Director

Neil Druckmann The Last of Us Movie Fail
By Klein Felt Posted:

As HBO's The Last of Us series marches towards its January 15 premiere date, the director of the original game, Neil Druckmann, revealed why the potential movie adaptation of the title failed. 

After releasing on PlayStation 3 back in 2013, The Last of Us has gone on to become one of the most decorated video games of all time, with many praising Naughty Dog's post-apocalyptic journey across America as a step forward for video game storytelling. 

Naughty Dog has always had a knack for cinematic storytelling in its games, but that was even more apparent in The Last of Us. So, when reports of a film based on the game started to trickle out in 2014, it made a lot of sense. 

That project never made it off the ground, and the game ended up finding a live-action home at HBO, but fans have wondered for years what happened to that film project. And now, fans have gotten a hint at what happened to The Last of Us' failed movie. 

What Happened to the Last of Us Movie?

The Last of Us
The Last of Us

After years of silence on the subject, it has been revealed what exactly happened to the film adaptation of The Last of Us that never got off the ground. 

Speaking with The New Yorker, The Last of Us (TLOU) game director, Neil Druckmann, told the outlet that the Sam Raimi-directed TLOU film failed because of his mistrust of the studios executive involved, and mandates to make the story bigger and "sexier" than it needed to be. 

In 2014 it was revealed that the Last of Us film right has been optioned by Sony subsidiary, Screen Gems, the studio responsible for, in Druckmann's words, "a particular kind of movie."

Screen Gems had made a name for itself producing films like the Resident Evil franchise, a much more stylized take on a video game world that (at least in its early days) was seeped in survival horror as opposed to big-screen action. 

Druckmann, who is also co-showrunner on the HBO adaptation of TLOU, noted that he thought a Last of Us film (or eventually TV series) had the potential to "enlighten this whole other audience" who would never pick up a controller to play a video game. So, as an evangelist for the medium he primarily worked in, he thought a TLOU adaptation could open the story up to an entirely new group of people:

 "[A truly great adaptation could] enlighten this whole other audience that cares about storytelling and hasn’t realized there’s amazing storytelling happening in games.”

However, that fell apart quickly with the Last of Us movie. Druckmann had envisioned something with a tone akin to the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men, whereas the studio wanted a more popcorn-movie/action affair similar to World War Z. 

After the project hung in limbo for a while, Screen Gems abandoned the project, something Druckmann believes was for the better. It was then that the game director found out Chornobyl's Craig Mazin had an interest in the title and, like Druckmann, thought the game would work better as a series rather than a feature-length film. 

Druckmann remembered telling Sony executives:

"Wait, The ‘Chernobyl’ guy? Why can’t I meet with him?”

It was from there, the two would join forces and begin work on what would become HBO's The Last of Us series. Druckmann remarked that the upcoming TV show based on his video game world will be "the best, most authentic game adaptation" yet. 

Co-showrunner Craig Mazin joked that that is "not the highest bar in the world," pointing to Assassin's Creed (which received a critically panned film adaptation in 2016), saying that is an experience where "the joy of it is the gameplay:"

“That’s not the highest bar in the world. I cheated—I just took the one with the best story. Like, I love 'Assassin’s Creed'. But when they announced that they were gonna make it as a movie I was, like, I don’t know how! Because the joy of it is the gameplay. The story is impenetrable.”

The pair made it clear that they are acutely aware of the dismal success rate when adapting video games. Druckmann lamented that the biggest mistake in these sorts of projects is when "[directors] think people want to see the gameplay onscreen."

On that note, the maligned Doom movie, starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, was brought up. Mazin and Druckmann said a title like that, where gameplay is so key to the experience, is "a perfect example of something that you don’t actually need to adapt:"

“'Doom' is also a perfect example of something that you don’t actually need to adapt. There’s nothing there that you can’t generate on your own—”

Checking All the Boxes for the Last of Us

It seems as though both Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin are checking all the boxes that The Last of Us fans will want to hear going into the highly-anticipated HBO adaptation

While a big-screen take on Naughty Dog's PS3 classic may have made sense back in 2014, when a big-budget TV series based on a video game just was not something that happened, the Last of Us name and legacy is probably better off having waited for HBO to come along. 

It was exciting nearly a decade ago to first hear a Last of Us film was in the making. However, if what Druckmann described above is true, this probably would not have been the evolution of the franchise fans wanted (or deserved). 

And it is not just a tonal thing. As Druckmann (and Mazin) mention, the scale of a story like this probably would not have even worked as a two-hour blockbuster. 

The Last of Us is not an action movie experience (a la Uncharted). It requires an extensive amount of time to get to know these characters, their struggles, and the world they inhabit. This is a story much more conducive to the narrative structure of an HBO TV series rather than a movie, to begin with. 

The Last of Us on HBO debuts on January 15, 2023.