I have now seen the Hunger Games prequel twice, titled The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, the 2-hour and 38-minute-long blockbuster is unmissable if you are a Hunger Games fan. The man responsible for this ‘Hunger Games renaissance’ is Francis Lawrence, who directed the final three original movies (he is the architect behind the cinematic masterpiece that is Catching Fire). The film itself is visually excellent, chronicling the 10th Hunger Games in which 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow mentors a tribute in his pursuit of the ‘Plinth Prize’, a substantial monetary prize for academic achievement which would save his family from destitution and fund his university education. Ballad draws constant parallels to the originals but still retains its own dilapidated 1950s-esque style, situated in a time before the technologically advanced and ostentatious Panem we all know.
The nostalgia is immersive, although the iconic Reaping scene is offset by the female lead breaking into song, which felt more Camp Rock than Hunger Games. Nonetheless, despite the out-of-the-blue musical numbers, it is a testament to the franchise. The soundtrack features songs from Olivia Rodrigo and Rachel Zegler - a vocal powerhouse who plays the female lead, Lucy Gray Baird, whose breakout role was Maria in the 2021 remake of West Side Story. With the exception of the jumpscare that is her Appalachian accent, Zegler embodies Lucy Gray, a performer to her core. For non-book readers who watched the original four films, Lucy Gray may seem jarring compared to Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss. Zegler herself points out the difference between the two leads, Katniss is a ‘fighter who is forced to perform’, whereas Lucy Gray is the stark inversion, ‘a performer forced to fight’.
Acting opposite Zegler is Tom Blythe, playing the young Coriolanus Snow. Despite the absence of Snow’s inner monologue featured in the books, Blythe does a fantastic job of portraying the future president as a conniving young man, but brilliant and motivated. Squared against Donald Sutherland’s portrayal, Blythe takes on the difficult role of playing the antagonist 60 years earlier, to imagine what forged him into what we see in The Hunger Games. Being a fan of the originals, viewing is an uncomfortable experience, you find yourself rooting for him; he is (at first) a sympathetic underdog, despite knowing the extent of the character’s villainy in the original films. Throughout the three-part film (entitled ‘The Mentor’, ‘The Prize’ and ‘The Peacekeeper’) you see flashes of ‘President Snow’, who is sycophantic, violent and mercurial. However, we also see moments of surprising empathy and warmth, although ultimately this is disregarded in his pursuit of power. As such, I would call Blythe’s Snow the 2023 poster boy for ‘male manipulator’, exacerbated by the buzzcut in Part 3, which I have seen referred to as ‘Paneminem’.
Performances by Viola Davis as the unforgettably creepy Dr Gaul and Peter Dinklage’s take on the unforgiving Casca Highbottom were stand out. Despite her scarcity in screen time, Hunter Schafer in her big screen debut as Snow’s cousin, Tigris, was also exceptional. She was the redeeming quality of her cousin, ‘Corio’, the moral compass that he (occasionally) listens to. One gripe I had with the acting was the supporting cast, who were weak in some areas; the other tributes in the 10th games for instance were giving GCSE drama, particularly Coral - the girl from District 4. Furthermore, against the outstanding performances of the main cast, the pacing of Ballad felt too fast. The opportunity for proper moments of introspection was lost, and because of the speed at which events moved, interactions between characters feel somewhat superficial. Upon further research, an extra hour was taken out from the final cut, which is perhaps why Hunter Schafer had so little screen time and the pacing felt so rushed. Ballad could’ve been a 2 part movie, like what was done with Mockingjay, but at the very least I am awaiting the release of an extended edition that includes the extra hour.
A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is rated at 12A, but it feels more gory than the originals, despite significantly less blood spray. Perhaps because of the gritty, more dystopian aura than its futuristic predecessors, Ballad seems to relish the barbarity of the Capitol - perhaps because Snow himself does - both within the 10th Hunger Games and in the far-flung forest of District 12. Antithetical to the violence is the excellently cast Jason Schwartzmann as Lucky Flickerman (an ancestor of Stanely Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman), who hosts the Hunger Games. His charisma and wit are refreshing against the morbidity of watching 24 children fight to the death in a decrepit sports stadium.
Despite the often unexpected belting songs that put Demi Lovato to shame and the frustratingly flat line delivery by Coral, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a worthy addition to the Hunger Games franchise, it stands on its own against the iconic original films. The descent of Snow from a morally ambivalent protagonist to the Machiavellian dictator we see in The Hunger Games is undoubtedly compelling regardless of the pacing issues. For all its contradictions and faults, Ballad is certainly worth watching especially if you are a long-time fan; Francis Lawrence has, once again, given the people what they wanted.
Words: Lizzie Winter, she/her