The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes releases in theatres everywhere on November 17th.
Attention people of Panem! Welcome to the tenth annual Hunger Games! There will be songbirds, snakes, snow, scandal and a full on soundtrack. But despite the same creative team being behind this revisiting of the titular series, this entry strays from its Lawrence-led predecessors in more than a few ways.
Instead of a Hunger Games movie, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is better described as a character drama surrounding the villainous President Snow inside the fictitious world of Panem. I say this because although the plot revolves heavily around them, the Games themselves only make up around twenty minutes of screen time. The rest of the film follows Coriolanus Snow (Tom Plyth) during his time at the Capitol Academy approximately sixty five years before the events of the original movies. We learn about the history of Panem and the origin of the Hunger Games, as we get a peek into what's called ‘The Dark Days’... a time of war between the Capitol and districts that had citizens starving and impoverished—some even resorting to cannibalism in order to survive.
Coriolanus (sometimes called Corio) (but never Anus?) comes from a Capitol dynasty with a tremendous legacy and integral ties to the Hunger Games. But ever since the Dark Days, the Snow family has been struggling to make ends meet while still putting on their Capitol-sized personas for everyone around them every morning. Snow’s family does this as a means of survival amongst the savage upper class within the Capitol, who would undoubtedly eat them alive should they discover they’re as poor as families out in the districts. This plays to the central idea of the film; the world is its very own version of the Games and we’re all just doing what we need to in order to be victors.
In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, The Hunger Games aren’t the spectacle we’re used to seeing. There are no sponsors, banquets, parties, or fame. The games themselves are quite simple; the Gamemakers place twenty four tributes in an empty arena and televise their fight to the death. However, after ten years of this barbaric (and boring) behaviour, the people of Panem have grown tired of watching. This is the problem Head Gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis) faces in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, and she looks to the Academy as a way to spark the country’s interest in the games once again. The zany, charismatic and completely unhinged Dr. Gaul recruits twenty four of the Academy’s star pupils to mentor this year’s tributes in the hopes of bringing more attention to the Games. Amongst them is a zesty Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), who wows the country when she breaks out in song upon being chosen at the District 12 reaping. As an incentive, the Academy promises the winning mentor a prize consisting of life-changing money. Enter Coriolanus Snow, Lucy Gray’s new mentor.
We all grew up with 'The Hunger Games' books and movies… but they did not grow up with us. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is very much geared towards a younger audience (likely to widen its box office reach) and may tackle some dark themes, but often shies away from the more mature subject matter. I found myself wishing this had been a two-part film noir or a limited series so we could’ve had enough time to focus and stew on the major character moments that seem to race by. There'd been talk of making this entry a two-parter (like the Mockingjay movies) due to it being the lengthiest of the four novels, but instead producers decided to squeeze the story into an already hearty runtime of two hours and thirty six minutes. And it still wasn't long enough to properly explore everything Collins built in her fourth novel.
The problem with The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is that audiences will leave this film wanting to have seen more than what they’re given. Whether or not this franchise is trying to widen their horizons and explore new stories within their IP, a lot of the conflict and character motivations in this movie fall through the cracks while watching. By the end, I was confused as to what exactly changed Snow and how he'd transitioned from good to evil. While still a valiant entry into what seems to be an ever-growing franchise, fans eager for answers might just walk away with more questions.
SPOILERS START NOW
I would've liked to have seen the producers end this movie with less ambiguity and more purpose. This entry could’ve been a lot better had they chosen a tone. There are some seriously gruesome moments (as the story revolves around themes of death, greed, betrayal and classism) but it’s hard to feel a sense of duty in these deaths, in the way they shape the previous movies.
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games
In The Hunger Games, Rue’s death is monumental in changing Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence). Her guilt and anger surrounding this one murder bleeds into the later movies, elevating the central theme and offering more nuance to her character than just a brief brush with loss. Even when she kills Marvel (Jack Quaid) in the first film, it haunts her in the second. Her time in the arena is traumatizing and life altering. She will never be the same due to the atrocities she witnessed and took part in.
But when Lucy Gray Baird heads back to District 12, we don’t see her experience any symptoms of PTSD or have any inkling she was fighting for her life a mere few weeks ago. In fact, she seems completely unphased. It remains unclear if she's simply desensitized due to the reality of this storyworld or if the narrative needed to push on past the Games once they’d wrapped up.
We needed more time to marinate on the circumstances of each major storyline, but instead the movie twists and pivots with a quickening pace until it evolves into something else entirely and leaves you wondering how you even got there. I found it difficult understanding and believing the metamorphosis Snow goes through because nothing monumental happens to turn him evil. At one point, he just starts killing people. And we aren’t entirely sure why. But we know he likes it.
Although set in the same world, the latest installment of the franchise diverges quite far from the original films thematically. Audiences should prepare for something completely different than what they’re used to before stepping into theaters this weekend. Fans of the series who are looking for a strong, intelligent and independent female character like The Girl on Fire herself won’t find it in Lucy Gray. Lucy Gray Baird (I assume this is her last name as it falls precisely between the two words ‘bird’ and ‘bard’) is far less resourceful than Katniss and a lot more willing to play the game.
Unlike Everdeen, Baird’s survival doesn’t depend on her own actions; it mostly depends on Snow’s. While Katniss’ resentment for the Capitol and its role in the destruction of her district defines her character, purpose and fuels her sense of justice, it seems Lucy Gray doesn’t fear much at all. And one thing about her... she's gonna sing.
Here’s what I wish we'd seen more of in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes...
Peter Dinklage as Dean Casca Highbottom in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
This first part of this film takes place within the Capitol’s Academy (the most expensive private preparatory in Panem) and introduces us to a slew of ostentatiously named students. Amongst them are Clemensia Dovecote (Ashley Laio), Arachne Crane (Lily Cooper) and Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andres Rivera). While boasting an impressive ensemble brimming with spicy opportunities to expand on the relationships between these scandalous characters, the time we get with each of them is brief and dependent on advancing Snow’s narrative. It would’ve been interesting to see more of these characters interact with each other, betray one another and build upon the dark academia setting a bit more. Perhaps audiences would care more about these characters had we seen them try and fail, love and lose, and embrace the clear juxtaposition between them and their mentee-tributes.
Josh Andras Rivera as Sejanus Plinth in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Sejanus (the second character whose name ends in Anus) is the most interesting (and tragic) character in the film aside from Snow. He’d originally been a citizen of District 2 but due to his father acquiring an immense fortune, his family relocated to the Capitol. In Panem, this is the equivalent of winning the lottery. This provides an interesting contrast between him and Snow, whose family had lost everything after the Dark Days. Having grown up in the districts, Sejanus has a very different view on The Hunger Games than his classmates. He’s morally righteous and believes the Games are ghastly and cruel. He advocates for equality and finds himself in a few precarious positions throughout the film due to his uncompromising moral compass. But despite his omnipresence in the film, we barely see his backstory. We only hear of it. Perhaps if we’d seen a little bit more of his story, his tragic arc would resonate with audiences more than it did with me.
Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Although one of the main characters of this film, Lucy Gray remains an enigma throughout the entirety of the movie. She’s difficult to read, impossible to decipher and it seems no matter where she ends up… she will sing her way through it. Despite holding most of the film’s screen time, we don’t see anything beyond her time with Snow in the present. There are references made to her time living as a nomad with her band of bards, but we never see how she grew up or what made her the young woman she is. It seems keeping her backstory a mystery was a creative decision from the production team, as it plants a seed in our minds to be reaped later: can she be trusted?
The death of her mother is mentioned briefly, but in a film with such a lengthy runtime, it’s hard to find moments that characterize her fully beyond the times she breaks out into song. I would’ve liked to see more of where she came from and more of how being in the arena affected her. It seems after a mere month of surviving the games, she’s back to performing and dancing like nothing ever happened. Besides the moment in which she sings a chilling rendition of ‘The Hanging Tree’, we rarely see how she struggles with the aftermath of her time in the Games.
As I mentioned before, the Games make up the shortest fraction of the film. Albeit, the tenth annual Hunger Games aren’t exactly the most extravagant occasion due to its first decade as tradition. The twenty four tributes are placed into a basic arena devoid of all the intrigue and spectacle we’ve seen in The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. There are no forests, jungles, rivers and lakes, no evil mutts or monkeys and most definitely no romance amongst tributes. That being said, it would’ve been interesting to see more conflict between the tributes than we got. It’s evident the games are still in their infancy when we see them take place in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, but this chapter of the film might’ve been more interesting had we seen more of the tributes fighting in the arena.
For fans of the novel, the third part of this story won't come as big of a shock as it was to me while watching. As soon as this portion of the film began, I felt a second wind lift me from my very seat! It was the first time the movie had genuinely surprised me and granted me some seriously high expectations. Snow leaves the Capitol and heads to District 12 in order to fall in love with Lucy Gray all over again. But this time, not as an Academy student—as a Peacekeeper. This portion of the film had immense potential to be epic, romantic and full of character development. I would’ve loved to see more of Snow and Lucy Gray falling in love, more of his role as a Peacekeeper, a more thorough exploration of Snow and Sejanus’ friendship and a conclusive ending. Zegler performs a song with The Covey called Nothing You Can Take From Me that will surely top charts in the weeks to come.
I understand these producers would like to keep the door open for future sequels featuring this cast and narrative. Although, the story might have been more digestible had they taken the time to explore every box they started to open. A great example of this is the under-utilized role of Tigris (Hunter Schafer), as well as the aforementioned brevities in the narrative. This should have been a limited series or a two-parter. All things considered, it’s an entertaining watch but does not stand next to its predecessors. Instead of leaving things open for sequel potential, give the people what they really want:
A dark and cunning limited series following Haymitch and his origin story!