The year is 2012, The Hunger Games has hit theaters and the renaissance of Young Adult fiction and dystopian films begins. The Hunger Games franchise has drawn in billions of dollars including the book trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Other YA adaptations followed suit, but none hit the mark like the world of Panem and its districts working towards freedom against the corrupt capital. Now, eight years after the release of Mockingjay – Part 2, Lionsgate has revived the series with a prequel that takes place 64 years before our heroine Katniss Everdeen enters the game arena. Franchise director Francis Lawrence returns to tell the tale of a young eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow, who would eventually become the sinister tyrannical President of Panem, in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes.
The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes can be seen as a villain origin story broken up into three parts: before, during, and after the 10th annual Hunger Games. Following who we know as an older President Snow (Donald Sutherland), actor Tom Blyth (Benediction, Billy the Kid) now takes the mantle in an incredible powerhouse performance. Blyth as Snow is magnetic, you feel drawn to him and to his cause. He begins the film seeking a better life for himself, his older cousin Tigres (Hunter Schafer), and his Grandma’am (Fionnula Flanagan) in a post-war Capitol. Both characters are used to bring out the best and worst sides of Snow. Schafer brings a gentleness to Tigres and is a positive force for Snow while Grandma’am wants to return to their previous status before the Panam Civil War.
There’s an inner battle that Snow is fighting with who he wants to become and what everyone else wants him to do. You empathize with his struggles to put food on the table while going to secondary school with the wealthiest students in the capital. In his time at the Academy, Snow befriends newly wealthy classmate Sejanus (Josh Andrés Rivera), who innately wants to rebel against the system. Snow seems to have all his chips lined up in a row until Head Gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis) proposes a way to keep the Hunger Games alive. The Academy is now going to assign tributes for the students to mentor for the first time ever. Snow is paired with District 12 tribute and musician Lucy Gray Baird (West Side Story’s Rachel Zegler). Immediately, he’s offended to be paired with her until he sees her sing at the reaping ceremony.
As the title suggests, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is as much about the music that Lucy sings to propel the story that Zegler performs with such ease. There are familiar franchise songs and new country ballads interwoven throughout. We get to see District 12 from a different lens, still downtrodden but filled with song and dance. Lucy is part of a nomadic musician group called the Covey that live as freely as they can under the capital’s rules. With the promise of a prize for the mentor with the last standing tribute and through Tigres’ encouragement, Snow seizes every opportunity to get close to Lucy. An unlikely romance between the two starts to form, with undeniable chemistry being felt at every stolen glance.
While the original prequel novel was met with mixed reviews, this movie adaptation feels totally different from the others in the franchise. Since it’s set in the past, it works well as a period piece. The technology of Panem isn’t there yet and the costumes by designer Trish Summerville mix in some retro fashion amongst the drab. Also, since it’s only the 10th Annual Hunger Games, this is like nothing we’ve seen before. There’s an indoor arena, there’s no sugarcoating the cornucopia of archaic weapons (one being a pitchfork), and the violence is brutal. This is also the first Hunger Games that introduce drone deliveries and they’re pretty rough, to say the least. The set design is larger than life, the Academy looks more like a government building than a school, the capital is bustling with grandiose architecture, and even Snow’s apartment is a mix of great wealth and poverty.
The entire cast ensemble is outstanding and really brings this version of Panem to life. Most of the tributes play up the despair, lacking the motivation and training to even make it through the first day. Jason Schwartzman gives a standout performance as Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman, the first host of the games whose comedic timing is excellent. He’s a weatherman turned host so at one point he even does both jobs hilariously during a lull in the game. It’s worth mentioning that he’s also a magician, this man can do it all and really shines through some of the darkest moments in the film.
Meanwhile, Peter Dinklage is haunting as “Cas” Highbottom, the Dean of the Academy and creator of the Hunger Games. A ghost of the man he once was, Cas feels cursed by the terror he’s created. You can’t look away while Dinklage is on screen, his banter with Viola Davis’ Dr Gaul is especially terrifying. As a bonus treat, there are plenty of fascinating easter eggs throughout The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, from nods to well-known characters to the origins of songs we’ve heard before to deeper looks into how the games became what they are in the main series. It all flows naturally in the script from writers Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt, making it a huge treat for fans.
With a runtime of two and a half hours though, the film does drag at times when it feels like there could be multiple different stopping points. Regardless, with stellar performances from Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler, this is a great addition to the Hunger Games franchise. You forget midway through that this is the origin of Snow’s journey to tyranny when you can’t help but root for him. The way you grow with him to finally see how he ends up as a power-hungry President is brilliant to watch. Given this is such a strong entry, it begs the question if more spin-offs can come from the series. As they say, “Snow lands on top.”