It’s never easy to write a prequel.
After all, when devoted fans of any franchise are teased with ‘origin’ stories of their favourite characters, it automatically comes with expectations. Suddenly, those familiar with the material are scouring any story with cues to future events that they already love. This leaves the writer with certain checkmarks that they need to scratch. At best, this can open the door for character growth. At worst, it can become empty fan service.
But The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes may have found a winning formula.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes follows a young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) as he deals with the shame of his father’s actions in the post-war Capital. Although his family is in poverty, Snow knows how to look the part in a world of wealth and prestige. When he is assigned to mentor young Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), Snow is initially reluctant. But Snow sees something in the tribute. As the two begin to work together, he sees that her value lies beyond her beauty. At the same time, Snow is battling his own impulses between good and evil, hoping to help Lucy survive the games while bettering his own situation in the process. After all, Snow always lands on top.
Based on the only prequel book to the hit series, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is an entertaining thrill ride. It may, in fact, supersede the entertainment value of the original. Directed by franchise stalwart Francis Lawrence, Songbirds and Snakes feels like a love letter to fans while still offering a compelling character study of its lead. Set 64 years before Katniss ‘volunteered as tribute’, everything in this world feels more raw and unpolished than its predecessors. Meant as a form of vengeance upon those who rebelled against the powers to be, these Hunger Games are only in their earliest stages. Without the dazzling special effects of the Games in earlier films, this field of battle feels more like a true gladiatorial pit.
But what hasn’t changed is that the powers want people to ‘enjoy the show’.
Performances across the board are also solid. From the dark philosopher Peter Dinklage to the absolutely over-the-top Viola Davis and the viciously silly Jason Schwartzman, everyone here is willing to play in these Games. But the bedrock of the film remains strong work from Blyth and Zegler. As Lucy, Zegler brings a quiet empathy to her confidence that sets her apart from Jennifer Lawrences’ rage-fueled performance in the previous film. Unlike Katniss, Zegler is an artist who has no interest in a fight yet when the time comes, she does what she must. (And, it’s worth noting that the film makes use of her musical talent without ever distracting from the story.)
But it’s a terrifyingly torn Blyth that serves as the driving force of the film.
As Coriolanus Snow, Blyth bites into the role with teeth. Here, as President-in-Waiting, Snow is a young man of ambition that wants to climb the social ladder but also empathizes with those in poverty. Unlike some prequels, Songbirds and Snakes chooses wisely to depict Snow at an age where he must choose his adult path. At every moment, Coriolanus seems as though conviction is tearing at his soul. With financial freedom in view, he knows what it will take to succeed. At the same time, the love within his heart (both romantic and compassion) seems to muddy the waters. In these moments, Blyth plays his character with both an innocence and malicious edge that one can’t help with being intrigued by his journey.
If there’s a flaw of the film, it’s simply its length. Although a runtime of 140 minutes is standard fare for action films in today’s box office, the film does feel a little long. Like the book itself, the film is told in three parts but the third segment does feel different enough to be the foundation for another film. (It actually feels like the entire book was covered in case they don’t get that chance.)
Having said this, there’s no question that The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes remains an intense and fun film. It remains to be seen whether or not this film will spark the beginning of a new chapter of this franchise. As the only book written prior to Katniss Everdeen’s fight for survival, Songbirds and Snakes doesn’t have additional source material, even if it leaves a few threads for the future. But, if this is the only film we see, Lawrence should be proud of managing to reinvent a world we thought we knew and giving it new life.
But it remains to be seen if people will be hungry for more.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is available in theatres on Friday, November 17th, 2023.
- Rated: PG-13
- Genre: Action, Adventure, Science Fiction
- Release Date: 11/17/2023
- Directed by: Francis Lawrence
- Starring: Fionnula Flanagan, Hunter Schafer, Jason Schwartzman, Peter Dinklage, Rachel Zegler, Tom Blyth, Viola Davis
- Produced by: Brad Simpson, Charlie Woebcken, Christoph Fisser, Henning Molfenter, Nina Jacobson
- Written by: Michael Arndt, Michael Lesslie
- Studio: Color Force, Good Universe, Lionsgate