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‘The Last of Us,’ on HBO, is the best video game adaptation ever.

Despite their often moving narratives, startling imagery, and millions of fans worldwide, Hollywood has struggled to turn even the most popular games into creatively and commercially successful films and television shows. There are the decent if hokey adaptations, such as Netflix’s “The Witcher” (also based on a book series), the boring ones, such as Paramount+’s sluggish “Halo,” and the unfathomably bad ones, such as the 1993 “Super Mario Bros.” film, which plays like a bad “Saturday Night Live” sketch (an upcoming Mario film, featuring Chris Pratt voicing the titular plumber, has already been maligned online before its release).

That’s why HBO’s adaptation of the critically acclaimed PlayStation game “The Last of Us” (Sunday, 9 EST/PST, out of four) feels like such a huge accomplishment. “Us” is a high-gloss zombie apocalypse story like “The Walking Dead,” but with just as much feeling as fighting, from “Chernobyl” creator Craig Mazin. It brings the visceral, intimate quality of a video game without feeling like you’re stuck in an uncanny valley while playing one, starring “Game of Thrones” alums Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey. “Us” is an aggressively competent, if not transcendent, series, but the dozens of failed game adaptations that came before it tip the scales decisively in its favour.

“Us” takes place in a post-apocalyptic world that differs from previous zombie stories. This time, the world-ending agent is a fungus that kills and controls its host body and spreads through bites from an infected body. These zombies, referred to as “infected” in the show, are covered in porous growths, can run, and are more difficult to kill. The fungi don’t take long to end the world, and the series begins in 2003, when everything went wrong, before jumping 20 years ahead to a totalitarian society that has survived death and destruction.

Joel (Pascal) lost his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) in the first outbreak, and two decades of trauma have made him a hard, unforgiving man. He and fellow survivor Tess (Anna Torv, “Mindhunter”) are attempting to flee Boston’s fascist-controlled “Quarantine Zone” when they come across Ellie (Ramsey). She is a 14-year-old girl born in a dystopian world who may hold the key to eradicating the fungal infection. Joel eventually agrees to bring Ellie west to a group of doctors looking for a cure.

Even for someone who has never played a single minute of “Us” on a PlayStation, it’s clear that the story is unique, and Mazin has done an excellent job of bringing it to life. The haunting and beautiful cityscapes Joel and Ellie pass through, and the mushroom zombies are impressively repulsive and far scarier than that description would suggest. Given the latter’s one-time status as the show-of-the-moment, “Us” is likely to face endless comparisons, but it feels visually distinct from that series, which was all boring blood and guts and Georgia backwoods.

Ramsey and Pascal are fantastic, perfectly cast for their roles and brimming with cheeky chemistry in every scene. Ramsey is silly and playful, as in the 2022 film “Catherine Called Birdy,” and a magnet for your eyes in the midst of chaos, as in “Thrones.” Pascal finally gets to act in Disney+’s “The Mandalorian,” free of his bulky helmet and monotone.

The story occasionally meanders away from Joel and Ellie’s journey west and focuses on other slices of humanity surviving in the aftermath of the end of the world, much like a cut scene in a video game, and these vignettes are what really make “Us” compelling. You might wish the show paid more attention to them. The third episode, about a survivalist played by Nick Offerman and the man he falls in love with (Murray Bartlett, “The White Lotus”), has the kind of writing and acting that can knock you off your feet.

“Us” isn’t a groundbreaking series, but it’s well done, compelling, and gripping, and it’s a great example of a zombie story done right. It could be more daring and take more risks. But that’s the problem with working from a well-known story with a devoted following: gambling with storytelling is rarely rewarded. More than anything else, “Us” appears to be designed to not offend fans of the original, right down to a massive super-zombie appearing in one episode who looks straight out of a “boss fight” in the game.

We’re not used to seeing intelligent, visually arresting, and even watchable video game adaptations. Even if it’s just a good TV show, “Us” might be the best one yet.

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