The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (2023, dir. Francis Lawrence)

by | Nov 18, 2023

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 157 mins

UK Distributor: Lionsgate

UK Release Date: 17 November 2023

WHO’S IN THE HUNGER GAMES: THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS AND SNAKES?

Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Peter Dinklage, Hunter Schafer, Josh Andrés Rivera, Jason Schwartzman, Viola Davis, Fionnula Flanagan, Burn Gorman, Ashley Liao, Max Raphael, Zoe Renée, Nick Benson, Isobel Jesper Jones, George Somner, Mackenzie Lansing, Cooper Dillon, Hiroki Berrecloth, Kjell Brutscheidt, Dakota Shapiro, Vaughan Reilly, Honor Gillies, Eike Onyambu, Konstantin Taffet, Michael Greco, Daniela Grubert, Carl Spencer, Scott Folan

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Francis Lawrence (director, producer), Michael Arndt and Michael Lesslie (writers), Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson (producers), James Newton Howard (composer), Jo Willems (cinematographer), Mark Yoshikawa (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A young Coriolanus Snow (Blyth) is assigned to mentor a new tribute from District 12 (Zegler)…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THE HUNGER GAMES: THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS AND SNAKES?

What does one do when one’s franchise has reached its natural conclusion? Go full prequel mode, of course. After all, why continue what doesn’t need to be continued when you can just rewind the clock and focus on a time long before the main story kicks in? Taking this route has worked for many other franchises, though it has also caused some division amongst their fanbases. What is the purpose, they might argue, of expanding on certain things that should have been left to the imagination of the viewer? Why, for instance, did we need to see all the political stuff in the Star Wars universe before it became the simple space fairy tale we all know and love? Or whatever was going on in the (now mercifully dormant) Fantastic Beasts series?

The filmmakers of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes aren’t too worried about any of that, apparently. Not only do they have plenty of consistent source material to work from – namely, author Suzanne Collins’ prequel book of the same name – but in giving viewers a look at life in the dystopian nation of Panem well before Katniss Everdeen came into the picture, they’ve somehow made it feel just about worthwhile that they’ve gone back in time for more substance.

Set 64 years before the events of the first film, we follow a young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) – who will eventually become the nation’s fierce dictator – as he’s studying in the Capitol in order to restore his family’s legacy. He and several other students, including wealthy classmate Sejanus (Josh Andrés Rivera), are invited to become mentors for the upcoming tenth annual Hunger Games (which, for those who are somehow unfamiliar, is where two young tributes from each of the 12 districts are selected to fight to the death), with Snow ending up with District 12’s selection Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler).

Snow soon notices that Lucy Gray is a natural when it comes to winning over viewers, and in order to win the monetary prize offered by head game-maker Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis) and the Games’ cynical creator Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), he sets out to change the ways in which the bloodbath is televised, on top of giving Lucy Gray – whom he is slowly becoming infatuated with – a fighting chance in the arena.

Though it would have been easy to simply rehash the familiar Hunger Games template for this prequel, returning director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Michael Arndt and Michael Lesslie make a noble effort to steer their film into some different new directions. We get to see a lot of the Capitol before it became the extravagant and coldly technological city we’ve seen in the other movies, with old-fashioned vehicles and television screens that harken back to the designs of the first half of the 20th century, but still containing some of those semi-futuristic touches, even in the far more impoverished districts.

It’s also interesting to see what the Hunger Games themselves were like before they became much more sophisticated, with the districts being dumped in a literal zoo for people to be gawked at like they’re live animals – a far cry, obviously, from how Katniss, Peeta and the others would be treated decades later – while the arena they’re forced to fight in is a crumbling old relic that’s unappealing in every way (and that’s before something shocking happens to it before the games commence). The filmmakers spend a considerable amount of time showing how this world at this particular point in the timeline works, and there is some fascinating world-building going on as you can see the foundations of how the future Hunger Games would function being laid in real time.

They don’t neglect the central focus, though, that being the rise of this younger version of series antagonist Coriolanus Snow, and how he begins his path to becoming the tyrant we know he will turn into. The script takes a number of interesting steps to show the humanity that is still within this character, as he goes through a decent arc where you see him go from this noble and level-headed person to someone becoming gradually corrupted by their growing desire for power and control. Tom Blyth plays him very well, as not only can you see the underlying menace that Donald Sutherland previously brought to the character, but the younger actor also makes his arc feel somewhat tragic, as again you can clearly see that deep down, he wants to be a good person, but is so consumed with coming out on top that he will do just about anything to reclaim his authority, even if it means betraying the people closest to him.

One of those people may or may not be Snow’s mentee Lucy Gray Baird, who herself is fascinating as she is at once similar to his much later nemesis Katniss Everdeen, but also very different. Whereas Katniss was a skilled warrior but an inept public persona, Lucy Gray is the exact opposite as she is a natural entertainer with charisma to spare and a singing voice sent from above – which, given that she is played rather excellently by Rachel Zegler, who at this point is surely destined for classic movie stardom, almost feels like typecasting in how perfectly this actor fits the role – but next to no real survival skills. This alone makes her an interesting presence, because you’re not as immediately confident of her odds as you were with Katniss, but at the same time she is so much fun to be around that it’s a lot easier to warm to this character, even if on paper she perhaps isn’t as interestingly written.

The filmmakers also establish newer approaches to the overall aesthetic, which again separates it from what came before. Lawrence and cinematographer Jo Willems give this earlier version of Panem its own unique visual style, incorporating some intentionally disorientating wide-angled shots into the numerous fight sequences as well as some simple dialogue exchanges, which almost give off the vibe of being stuck in a bad dream that you can’t seem to wake up from. There is also a bit of twisted humour inserted into the proceedings, much of it coming from host Lucky Flickerman (played by a lively Jason Schwartzman) who at one point resorts to performing basic magic tricks and even presenting the weather forecast to pad out the periods between the tributes killing each other on the live broadcast.

Its overall structure, though, has perhaps the most radical change-up. Split into three individual sections of plot, the film feels much more like a self-contained epic than the other Hunger Games movies, which as great as some of them could be (Catching Fire is still the best one, as I’m sure it is for a lot of other people) all relied on each other to tell one thorough narrative, whereas this tries to do it all in one go. I suspect that this is perhaps a response to the controversial decision to split the final novel, Mockingjay, into two films, but that is pure speculation.

What isn’t speculation, though, is the fact that this elongated structure ends up giving the film a sluggish pace where you do feel the length of its near three-hour runtime, and unlike other movies this year that have landed around that timestamp, this one is less stable when it comes to holding your full attention. You can feel the lack of focus starting to creep in as scenes go on for much longer than they need to, seemingly without trimming down many of the unnecessary filler moments. I can’t say for sure, having not read the original book, but it does feel like the writers were instructed to follow the source material all too closely, without much room to remove some of the less important parts or add in their own inventions to replace them with. It can be difficult to stay invested, even with all the interesting world-building and character set-ups that they’re doing here, because it doesn’t seem to have as much restraint as some of the other films in this franchise.

However, there are more good things here than there are bad things, which does make it a worthwhile prequel despite its lesser qualities. If anything, though, it should be seen just to certify Rachel Zegler as the star she was always meant to be.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a well-made prequel that explores a different era of Panem with plenty of intriguing world-building and character setup, but a sluggish pace prevents it from reaching the top quality of this franchise.

Four of of five stars

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