Despite a challenging premise and an overlong runtime, the Hunger Games prequel makes the most of the hand it’s been dealt.
The character of Coriolanus Snow is an odd choice for a Hunger Games hero. In the original books and films, as played by screen giant Donald Sutherland, Snow was a cold-hearted, cruel dictator clearly meant to echo real world fascist leaders. Here, in the prequel story The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (say that five times fast), Coriolanus (Tom Blyth) is just a sensitive, emotional teen dreamboat whose main goal is to provide for his family in the wake of the violent revolution that tore apart Panem, the country formerly known as the United States of America.
It’s difficult to understand why author Suzanne Collins, who wrote the novel Songbirds is based on, made the decision to try to humanize a violent authoritarian when a core theme of the original Hunger Games books and movies was lashing back at systemic oppression. Nonetheless, director Francis Lawrence (Catching Fire, I Am Legend) and his enthusiastic cast of talented performers make the best of the rather thematically confused story arc they’ve been given, turning in one of the most exciting, emotionally arresting entries in the franchise.
The film opens with Coriolanus and his cousin/surrogate sister Tigris Snow as very young children, running through the streets of the post-revolution Capitol. The once-grand city has been reduced to smoking ruins, and the Snow children are rummaging for food in trash bins when they see a desperate man hacking a body to pieces with a hand axe. “Why is he doing that?” asks a frightened Coriolanus. “He’s starving,” Tigris replies. This grim scene sets the tone for Songbirds, which just might be the darkest Hunger Games story so far. It’s impressively unafraid to confront some of the practical realities of life in its imagined dystopia, unlike previous movies set in the same world.
While the Tributes of the original Hunger Games film were dropped into a high-tech jungle arena after weeks of athletic and strategic training, as well as hearty meals, the child sacrifices here are held in an outdoor zoo enclosure where Capitol residents come to taunt and gawk at them. Not only are they dirty and starving, but many of them are visibly hurt or disabled. One child is an amputee before the Hunger Games even begin; another tribute is a very young girl with Down Syndrome. These changes evoke the real life plights of children living through humanitarian crises around the world, making the film’s emotional stakes all the more pressing and urgent-feeling.
At the same time, depicting the Tributes as the most vulnerable kids, some of whom are already on the verge of dying from sickness before being killed off by their fellow contestants, is a double-edged sword. It’s hard to enjoy the frothy action sequences of the arena in the same way audiences cheered on heroes Katniss and Peeta in the first Hunger Games movie. But then again, maybe that’s the point. Either way, Songbirds includes some of the most brutal violence the series has shown so far. In particular, the emotional mercy killing of a badly beaten contestant pushes the limits of the film’s PG-13 rating.
Coriolanus Snow, whose late father co-created the Hunger Games with his best friend Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), is pulled into the Games when he and his fellow Capitol Academy classmates are assigned Tributes to mentor. Game designer Dr. Volumnia Gaul (the legendary Viola Davis) is concerned that fewer and fewer Panem residents are tuning in to watch the Games, and she needs new ideas and fresh blood—literally. These scenes at the Academy are some of the most fun and charming moments of the film. Snow’s classmates are delicious nasty rich kid caricatures, many of whom meet ends as violent as the ones they plan to inflict on the impoverished Tributes.
It may not be incisive class commentary, but with Viola Davis slinking around, gnashing her teeth and cackling, who really cares? Dinklage is equally excellent as the troubled, drug-addicted Academy dean who’s turned to opiates to numb his guilt at creating the Games. An impeccably cast Jason Schwartzman rounds out the Capitol team as daffy television presenter Lucky Flickerman, the father of Stanley Tucci’s iconic Caesar Flickerman. Schwartzman provides much needed comic relief, especially as the Games’ body count climbs higher and higher.
[O]ne of the most exciting, emotionally arresting entries in the franchise.
There’s no Katniss here, but we still have a plucky District Twelve heroine to root for. West Side Story’s Rachel Zegler dazzles as Lucy Gray Baird, a traveling musician who ends up in the Hunger Games thanks to a betrayal by some fellow District Twelve citizens. Zegler sings no less than eight songs on Songbirds soundtrack, many of which convincingly ape traditional Appalachian folk tunes. It’s a delight to watch her perform, and she pulls off musical numbers and action scenes with equal aplomb. Coriolanus is immediately smitten with Lucy, and it’s hard to imagine the audience won’t be too.
Lawrence and screenwriters Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt keep things moving at a decent clip for the first two acts of the film, but when the Hunger Games end and there’s still about an hour left of runtime, the story starts to get muddled and confusing for those who haven’t read the novel already. Josh Andrés Rivera (also of West Side Story) does an admirable job playing Snow’s kindly foil, Nepo Baby-turned-secret revolutionary Sejanus Plinth. Blyth also holds his own at center of the film, lending Snow a quiet, focused charisma. However, both Coriolanus and Sejanus are underserved by the flimsy screenplay, which makes Coriolanus’ heel turn feel unmotivated and opaque. Perhaps most frustratingly, his relationship with Lucy Gray falls apart in what feels like an instant, and we never get a satisfying conclusion to her arc.
While the ins and outs of this world’s politics might be inscrutable to viewers who aren’t already devoted readers of the Songbirds book, this Hunger Games prequel is still a surprisingly worthy entry in the franchise. The action scenes, particularly those set in the shambolic, crumbling area, are far more exciting than most of the CGI-heavy muck one typically finds in franchise films these days. The creative team’s interest in fleshing out Panem pays off too, lending The Hunger Games a feeling of relevance, even fifteen years after the first book’s publication. It’s still not entirely clear why Collins felt that Snow’s story was an important one to tell, but it’s an entertaining ride all the same.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is now playing in theaters.