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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes': A Thoroughly Exhilarating Prequel

Of all the YA series set in a dystopian world that became wildly popular in the 2010s, none have been anywhere near as successful as The Hunger Games. This isn't all that surprising considering that it essentially kicked off the trend, but its countless imitators struggled to capture the magic that made the The Hunger Games such a global phenomenon. Both the books and the films were massive successes, garnering a huge fanbase and making tons of money. After the last entry in the franchise, 2015's The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 2 was released, it looked like the series had come to a close, and with it, the YA dystopian boom began to die out. But in 2020, series author Suzanne Collins released a prequel entitled The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. The novel takes place 64 years before the events of the first book, and focuses on Coriolanus Snow, the main antagonist of the series. The book was initially met with a mixed reception, with some wondering why Collins would choose to write a book that centers so much on the villain of the series. I was skeptical of it myself, as I was worried that the novel would seem unnecessary. I couldn't help but feel that it would try to redeem Snow, or that it would end up being a trite teen romance or something of the like. As a fan of the books and the films, I knew had to give the prequel a fair shake, and was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it. It's neither a redemptive tale or a love story, but an account of Snow's role as mentor in the 10th Hunger Games, and how it affected the rest of his life between then and when we meet him in the first book. It gets into the political implications of the world Collins has created, and gives a detailed look at Snow's rise to power. Despite my enjoyment of the novel, I was still cautious going into the film adaptation of it, as I was a little burned by the film version of Mockingjay, which was needlessly split into two parts. But against all odds, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes manages to be both a faithful book-to-screen adaptation, and one of the best entries in the franchise.

Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) is a young student in the Capitol of Panem, the dystopian version of the United States where the series takes place. He is chosen to be a mentor for the 10th Annual Hunger Games, where he seeks to gain a scholarship to restore his family's high status in society. He is paired with a tribute from District 12, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), an eccentric and musically gifted young woman. Coriolanus quickly does everything he can to make Lucy Gray stand out and gain favor with viewers of the Games, and soon finds himself growing closer to her. This leads to conflict within Coriolanus, as he is torn between his feelings for Lucy Gray, and his desire to rise through the ranks of the Capitol.

The Hunger Games movies in general are fairly good adaptations, and Songbirds and Snakes might be the most faithful of the bunch. Between its three-part structure, adherence to specific plot details, and bringing Collins detailed world to life, this film will no doubt be a treat to fans of the series. A lot of credit is due to screenwriters Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt, who do a great job of translating the novel to the screen. I can't help but feel that Arndt especially is part of why the film works as well as it does, as he co-wrote the script for Catching Fire, my personal favorite of the series. Arndt and Lesslie know exactly what to keep and what to change to make the film flow well, and lays a great foundation for the film to be built on. It's especially great as an adaptation, but it is also rather solid as a screenplay for a genre film in general.

Of course, Francis Lawrence is also a key component of the bulk of the series, as he has directed every installment since Catching Fire. Lawrence is more of a journeyman director in general, but he clicks so well with the world of the franchise. Songbirds and Snakes might be his strongest work in the series to date, as well as his strongest work period. He allows the audience to feel the immensity of the Games themself, while also allowing the relationship between Coriolanus and Lucy Gray to be more closely felt. Not to mention that the action is well-choreographed and captured to a shockingly brutal degree for a PG-13 film. I suppose as long as you don't show blood, you can get away with anything, and these films have always had a level of violence, but it doesn't make it any less startling to see. I do appreciate this detail, as it shows a less refined edge to the early days of Games, which only adds to the film's draw.f Lawrence, along with Arndt and Lesslie do such a great job of showing the more primitive version of the Games, which feels all the more potent given that we know how evolved they become with the other installments in the series. They understand the world of Panem so well, and do such a great job of bringing it to life.

My only real gripe with the film is that it barrels along so well for the first two acts, but slows down tremendously for the third. This didn't surprise me too much since I have the same complaint with the novel. I get the need for everything that happens in the final act, as it ties everything up and informs who Coriolanus eventually becomes, but it causes the last section of the film to feel a bit overloaded, and drags it down a little. That said, I can't be too mad at it, because it still has compelling scenes within it, but it does kill some of the momentum the film has built up to that point.

I was particularly fascinated by the set design for the film, which is more spare and almost dusty compared to the previous films. It is such a stark contrast to the more polished, fuller look of the rest of the series, but it succinctly shows that this is a world that is still developing after the destruction laid out in the film's first scene. The way that the locations are designed shows that the citizens may have may have rebuilt and began to move on, it is still evolving into the more advanced world we know from the other films. I appreciate that the arena set is literally an arena, as opposed to the more open wilderness of the first two films. It really zeroes in on the idea of the Games being used as entertainment, and even if it is a little on the nose, it still works so well.

The Hunger Games franchise has had some phenomenal casting throughout the series, and this film carries on that tradition. The supporting cast is stacked, with great actors such as Viola Davis, Peter Dinklage, and Jason Schwartzman all turning in solid performances. Davis is especially excellent, as she is given the opportunity to play against type and play a literal mad scientist. As Dr. Gaul, the head gamemaker for the Hunger Games, she chews the scenery every time she appears, yet she never goes too over the top. It's a big performance for sure, but Davis's energy is so infectious and feels pitch perfect. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Dinklage is restrained and imposing as the creator of the Games, adding a level of gravitas to the film that I personally appreciated. Schwartzman is the scene stealer of the film, playing Lucky Flickerman, the first-ever host of the Hunger Games. He has this smarmy showman energy that yields some great comic relief for the film, with several of his line deliveries ending up among of my favorite moments of the film. I love that all three of these actors were game to do this film, as they all fit into the world of the series much better than I would have ever guessed.

The younger actors are just as incredible, as they feel so dialed into their characters and the world around them. Josh Andrés Rivera first caught my attention in West Side Story, and this film has me begging for him to be cast in more things. As Sejanus Plinth, Rivera is given a role that could have been brushed away a little, but his presence and commitment makes it sing. Rachel Zegler is truly phenomenal here, further proving that she is one of our most promising new actors. It is so exciting to see her play a more fiesty, wilder character like Lucy Gray, and she truly embodies her well. Her reactions to the violence, as well as her acts of defiance and her chemistry with Tom Blyth are so powerful, and I would argue that she is the best performance of the film. Although, the more I sit with Tom Blyth's take on Coriolanus Snow, the more I appreciate it. I was a little put off by the almost stiffness that can be seen Blyth's early scenes in the film, but after reflecting on Donald Sutherland's portrayal of the character in the previous films, I began to see how he was showing the seeds of what Snow becomes, and the performance began to click for me. It's a bit subtler compared to the rest of the performances for much of the film, but when a crucial turn happens in the character, it goes to a new level, and we begin to feel Snow crystallize into the version of the character we are more familiar with. It's a rather unenviable task for Blyth, but nevertheless, he does an impressive job pulling it off.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is both a good book-to-screen adaptation, and a great entry in the Hunger Games series. It fleshes the world of the franchise out a little more, and will definitely be a huge hit with longtime fans. I was not anticipating liking this film nearly as much as I do, but it impressed me with how well it builds off the rest of the films, and I'd argue that it features the best filmmaking of the series. I definitely had my doubts going into this film, but thankfully, the odds are definitely in its favor.

Rating: 4/5

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