“It’s the things we love most that destroy us,” Coriolanus Snow tells Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1. How exactly Snow came across this piece of wisdom is something the new prequel movie, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, successfully explains, but perhaps not in the depth it deserves.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes place 64 years before The Hunger Games. Coriolanus Snow is a teenager with perfect grades, a loving family and a privileged name, but he’s hiding the fact that his social status is built upon a lie: they’re penniless and facing poverty. His future hinges on the proverbial Plinth Prize – a pool of cash awarded to the top student – that will keep the Snows afloat and propel his ambitions through university.
To secure this, Coriolanus faces a nigh impossible task – make the Hunger Games engaging again. Panem is a very different place at this point in time. The war between the Capitol and the Districts is a recent memory that hasn’t been entirely quashed by the threat of sending children to the arena. The Hunger Games are far from the prestigious event they go on to become, and so Coriolanus sets out to make murder palatable as one of the first tribute mentors.
It’s an intriguing premise, and one that is worth the buy-in. Where The Hunger Games movies tore down the idea of children killing each other for entertainment, the Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes asks us to side with someone who is invested in glorifying it.
Naturally, Coriolanus is saddled with the District 12 tribute Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a magnetic and fiery force who still fails to escape the shadow of Katniss fully. Nevertheless, Lucy provides a worthy test for Coriolanus, as does his friend and fellow mentor, Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera).
As a movie, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes delivers exactly what you’d expect from a The Hunger Games spin-off. Director Francis Lawrence doesn’t break the wheel, instead serving up more of what we love from the original films. The film has the same epic orchestral score, the same sweeping cinematography, many of the same iconic locations, and it asks similar moral questions about the nature of entertainment and power and the lengths we’ll go to for each. It invites fans back into a world that is familiar and well-loved, and it is very nice to be back.
But if we’re just going to rehash The Hunger Games, why not just rewatch The Hunger Games?
The answer lies in the lead character. When The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes debuted in 2020, many were sceptical about exploring the story of the epitome of evil that is President Snow. Do we want to sympathise with him? Should we? But there’s no denying society has as much fascination for a villain’s origin story as we do the hero’s; you only have to look at Star Wars, Loki or Joker to see that.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ young Coriolanus Snow is a far more morally complex character than Katniss. His journey to becoming the tyrannical villain we’re familiar with is rich with potential, and Tom Blythe sells the hell out of it. But the decision to cram the 500-page book into a 2.5-hour film doesn’t give Coriolanus’ Breaking Bad journey the breathing room it needs or deserves.
Instead, it takes a back seat to the games themselves. Like the Capitol citizens, we’re here to be entertained, and that results in a lot of attention being placed on the actual Hunger Games, which are just different enough from the original movies to still feel fresh. This makes for a riveting first half of the movie that is full of adrenaline-fuelled action, burgeoning young love, surprisingly brutal violence and plenty of spectacle.
But things lose steam when the games end, and we’re left with an hour of plot that is more a simmering complex character study than a blockbuster finale. Arguably, the third act is where the most interesting drama occurs, but it feels like it’s plucked from another story and is rushed in an effort to get to a conclusion, leaving us with less satisfaction and more confusion.
Francis Lawrence has admitted that he regrets splitting Mockingjay into two movies, but in this case, perhaps The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes could’ve benefitted from that same treatment.
Of course, it’s not all about Snow, and the supporting cast does its share of lifting here. Jason Schwartzman’s Lucky Flickerman offers some stark comic relief, Hunter Schafer’s Tigris serves and steals scenes, and Viola Davis and Peter Dinklage make playing ethically questionable characters look easy.
At the end of the day, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes really is a glorious return to the world of The Hunger Games. It is a delight for fans of the movies but perhaps a disappointment for fans of the book who are hoping for more of the richness of Snow’s story to translate on screen.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes Review – The verdict
Pros: Glorious return to a familiar world, dynamic action, great performances across the board.
Cons: The third act is a complete tonal shift. Snow’s arc feels rushed.
Watch it if you liked: Any of The Hunger Games movies, Joker, Loki.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is in cinemas from November 16.
Lead Image Credit: Roadshow