The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
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When we sit down for another Hunger Games movie we know what we’re in for. Adapted from Suzanne Collins’ trilogy for young adults, they’re full of commentary-via-metaphor on class, politics, war, propaganda, and the inherent violence of the entertainment industry. Children are made to fight to death in dangerous arenas on live television – an inversion of reality TV and game shows that can also amount to gaining the favor of vapid privileged audiences through archery skills. The Games’ conflicts are won not with true combat, but with deceit and manipulation. Director Francis Lawrence returns to the franchise for its newest installment, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (based on Collins’ 2020 book), a prequel that has all the potent ingredients of the previous films and then some making it enjoyable yet not deeply satisfying its complex narrative.

We get treated to a brief prologue set in “The Dark Days” immediately after the Districts’ war with Capitol where Tigris and her young cousin Coriolanus Snow see a man cutting off a corpse’s leg to eat. Fast forward to the present, on the day before the 10th annual Hunger Games, an event that is meant as collective punishment and serves as a stark reminder of the Capitol’s absolute control over Districts.

With just one more term before he moves on to university, Coriolanus (a bleach-blonde Tom Blyth) will have to partner with the unlucky child tributes selected for this year’s Hunger Games in what is expected to be the first mentorship program in history. The situation is desperate for Coriolanus: through winning this year’s Victor’s mentorship, he can win money that would help him buy his grandmother and his cousin (an underused Hunter Schafer) out of poverty and their once-grand, now-shoddy apartment.

This new mandate is just one of the many changes that have been made to this year’s Games. Viewer numbers are down – that is, the citizens of Capitol no longer enjoy watching children killing each other so much anymore. The mentors are informed that they must find a way to make these games a true spectacle, something that will keep people glued to their screens. (There goes that comment about entertainment again.)

At first, he is hopeless, but then Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler in all her vibrancy), Coriolanus Snow’s mentee and a traveling singer from District 12 proves she is ready to create unforgettable memories among those who watch at home. This combined with Coriolanus’ sneaky self-serving bent and his ability to cozy up with real power players like magician-weatherman-host Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman in an uproariously funny performance) or mad-scientist Games designer Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis channeling retro Disney villainy) stack the deck in their favor.

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes Trailer

Naturally, there are wrinkles too. Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera), who was once friends with Coriolanus at school hailed from Districts though his father was rich and well connected enough to buy him a capital education for their son but sympathizes with its citizens trapped within them and rebels still lose on Capitol land making it difficult for Coriolanus to control him all the time. And of course, Coriolanus falls in love with Lucy Gray as well which means he has even more reason to do whatever it takes in order not to let her die.

It’s a great story, and great prequel material too. That sets things up and answers quite a few interesting questions: Who invented the Hunger Games? What are they really about? How did Donald Sutherland end up playing such an evil president? However, its plot density – it takes place over the entire course of one Hunger Games and its results for that matter – made me wish if it were either longer (it’s already almost three hours long) or divided into two parts, as in the case of the trilogy’s concluding book Mockingjay. Unlike Mockingjay, there is enough material here for two movies – The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes doesn’t have enough time to depict the interplay of emotions and manipulations that make up Coriolanus and Lucy Gray’s relationship.

This inconsistent duality should be the motivation for the action here. One has to wonder which, if any, of these characters are truly sincere in their motives or if everything is just a means to an end. This is evident in Lucy Gray’s introduction where she sings a local folk song defiantly on live TV and places a snake into the enemy’s clothes, maybe knowing that one must put up an act in order to win the Games. Coriolanus is constantly shown stepping aside from or actively participating in the downfalls of those he considers friends. Nonetheless, this movie does not pose the question of who is using who until it ends when it becomes too late. Rather than seeing Coriolanus’ slow but sure descent as a predetermined result of his circumstances and personality traits, it feels like both a grand reveal and tragedy at once.

There lies a tragedy at the heart of this film. I’d probably say that this was maybe the first time that a Hunger Games movie showed how children kill each other –the stripped bare empty sports hall starkly contrasts against flashily terraformed future arenas with beautiful sceneries and eye-catching wildlife that make people forget about violent scenes inside them. It feels like a real-life spectacle but there is not quite enough extra input for it to make for a good show.


The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (2020) brings back director Francis Lawrence, who helmed each subsequent installment in The Hunger Games series after Gary Ross directed the first film (2012). It constitutes Suzanne Collins ‘ prequel novel which has been faithfully adapted although it loses its strength while picturing the intricate web of interpersonal machinations and emotions constituting its doomed main characters’ relationship. Tom Blyth’s performance as Tom Holland’s version is equally magnetic but Zegler isn’t given enough time to develop her character fully.

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