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The Hunger Games: The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes Review: The Most Brutal Hunger Games Movie Yet, But It Can't Escape Some Textbook Prequel Traps

 Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.
Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

How is a villain born? It’s a question that a number of famous franchises have asked in years past, from Darth Vader’s turn to the Dark Side in Star Wars, Magneto going rogue in the X-Men movies, or yes, even through The Rise of Gru in the latest Minions. This storytelling trend brought bestselling The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins back to her dystopian world for the first time in a decade when The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes hit bookshelves in 2020, and now that Panem’s tyrannical ruler President Coriolanus Snow has both an origin novel and a big-screen adaptation, it’s time to give the latest installment its roses – thorns and all.

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds And Snakes

Rachel Zegler bowing in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Rachel Zegler bowing in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Release Date: November 17, 2023
Directed By: Francis Lawrence
Written By: Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt
Starring: Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Hunter Schafer, Jason Schwartzman, Peter Dinklage, Josh Andrés Rivera, and Viola Davis
Rating: PG-13 for strong violent content and disturbing material.
Runtime: 157 minutes

Director Francis Lawrence – who helmed the widely regarded best movie of the Hunger Games series, 2013’s Catching Fire, along with the final two Mockingjay films – returns to Panem to tell a story set over sixty years before The Girl on Fire rocked the games. Tom Blyth plays Coriolanus Snow when he was a teenager going to an academy at the Capitol. Ahead of the 10th annual Hunger Games, he and his classmates get a bombshell final assignment that has them each being assigned a tribute to mentor at Panem's still rather fresh blood-splattering reality program.

They are tasked with finding ways to make each poor pawn a “spectacle” in order to help boost ratings in the truly twisted broadcast. The movie follows Snow as he is randomly chosen to mentor the female District 12 tribute, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler). As we know, of course, Snow’s downfall decades later is at the hands of another District 12 female tribute in Katniss Everdeen, so the irony couldn’t be more dead on.

On one hand, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes provides excellent additional worldbuilding for the Hunger Games, but on the other, there’s some intrinsic staleness about Snow being the one at the center of it all.

Francis Lawrence delivers a stylish and rather ruthless Hunger Games origin story.

The Hunger Games prequel gorgeously sets the scene for the world of Panem at a much different time in its history. The games are not the glossy event as we know it. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is the most brutal look at Suzanne Collins’ dystopian creation, yet it very much follows the source material’s lead there. It takes many opportunities to delve much deeper into the ferocious social commentary that was initially set up and doesn't shy away from exposing a more raw and primitive edition of the Hunger Games that even brings to life the morbid origins of “The Hanging Tree.”

For example, the arena is not a massive and exciting forest or island destination – it’s literally an arena where 24 minors enter knowing that just about all of them are about to die violent deaths. The prequel’s biggest strength lies in this setup, as Jason Schwartzman’s own announcer character, Lucky Flickerman (who is obviously an ancestor of Stanley Tucci’s unforgettable blue-haired Caesar Flickerman), takes a pitch-dark comedic approach to hosting the whole thing, breaking some much-needed tension in key moments. The action and fight sequences in the arena do not pull any punches here either; they are thrilling and violent, and the oppression of Panem’s people is more deeply felt.

The Ballad of Songbirds And Snakes’ ensemble cast is incredible, especially Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler.

Delivering in his first leading role in a film, Tom Blyth was expertly cast as a charming and sly young Snow. He is well matched by the true heart of the film, Rachel Zegler’s Lucy Gray Baird, a District 12 tribute who is the complete opposite of Katniss Everdeen. From the moment her name is called at the Reaping, Lucy brings a certain bite to the movie that helps carry the story along. The film makes great use of the powerful presence Zegler demonstrated on screen with Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, since Lucy is a singer who brings her gift of song to the Hunger Games throughout. She’s exactly the kind of spectacle the game needs, and it’s interesting to see the complicated interplay that takes place between Snow and Lucy throughout the epic.

It’s also worth singing the praises of two well positioned character performances by Viola Davis and Peter Dinklage. As Head Gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul, Davis vividly brings intrigue and intricacy to a character that could have been a one-note laughable villain in another’s hands. Dinklage also shines as the embittered Dean Casca Highbottom, as he plays a necessary foil to Snow’s eager journey to prove himself worthy in the dark and political world of the Capitol. Hunter Schafer’s Tigris is underutilized, but a sweet cherry on top to an incredibly well-cast adaptation.

It’s a very solid adaptation of the novel, but it can’t help but carry the source material’s own drawbacks with it.

Readers of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes can rest assured this is a faithful adaptation of the novel it’s based on. And there’s plenty to enjoy for casual fans who skipped the books for the movies all along. However, as with many book adaptations, there’s a bit of depth lost without the character’s thoughts in one’s head. The movie also doesn’t really answer the question as to why Snow needed to be the protagonist to bring back the Hunger Games in any original way, and the most interesting element of the movie is a toss between the games themselves and Lucy Gray Baird’s journey.

As his character name plainly conveys, there’s a coldness to Snow that this prequel doesn’t fully understand how to blow past, and it basically repeats the same problem that previous villain origin prequels have had again and again. There's also an inherent on-the-nose quality about stories like this that tend to falter. For example, do we really need to hear the word "Katniss" somewhere in the movie just to remind us of that the famous main character of the franchise exists? And, of course like five characters are related to other characters in the original series as well.

If you push the tired prequel tropes aside, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a rather triumphant comeback for The Hunger Games franchise that ups the stakes from the original films and dives deeper into the storytelling from a welcome new angle. Perhaps the best answer to the villain question the movie delves into is that anyone can become a villain; it's just the circumstances that make them are simply not as satisfying as the hero’s journey that unfolds in parallel.