Movie review: Hunger Games prequel ‘The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’

As a 30-something millennial, I’ve now officially arrived at the stage of life where the pull of pop culture nostalgia is hitting me pretty hard. I have fond memories of the franchises that ruled the box office in the mid to late 2000s and early 2010s, when I was a college student/young professional and loved geeking out with my friends about the latest movies hitting theaters. 

We loved Pirates of the Caribbean, and witnessed the MCU explode in popularity. While I never personally got into the Twilight fandom, I remember how big that was. For these movies, you HAD to be there on opening night, and you also had to arrive early so you could stand in line to get a good seat. (Although I love the convenience of reserving your seat number ahead of time these days, sometimes I kinda miss the experience of waiting in line, chatting with other fans, and feeling that tense build-up of excitement and anticipation before the movie starts.)

The Hunger Games is another one of those millennial franchises that I remember well. I read the original books by Suzanne Collins and eagerly waited for the movies. I can remember going with a friend to an opening night for one of those films; I dressed up as Katniss Everdeen and she was Effie Trinket. 

When you think about it, the franchise is rather dark and violent to be a big budget hit movie franchise: a ruthless government forces every district in the post-apocalyptic country of Panem to send “tributes” — two children from each district who are forced to fight to the death in an arena against all the other tributes while the battle is broadcasted on live television. 

Dystopian young adult fiction was all the rage back then, and while I’m not a professional historian or psychologist and do not have the qualifications to make any kind of definitive statement, I’m not really surprised that dystopian fiction resonated with millennials in that era. Events like 9/11 and the 2007-2008 financial crisis rocked our view of the world, and shattered our childhood optimism. Stories like The Hunger Games were dark, but they also featured characters who held strongly to their moral compass despite the challenges around them and didn’t stop fighting for what was right. 

The world has continued to change since the last Hunger Games movie came out in 2015, and while I don’t think about the franchise anywhere near as often as my primary fandoms (such as Star Wars and Marvel), I rewatch the movies occasionally. And when Collins came out with a prequel novel called The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, I was intrigued enough to pick it up. 

Originally, I didn’t think I’d be interested in a prequel story about Coriolanus Snow, the primary villain of the original trilogy and definitely a character you love to hate (shout-out to Donald Sutherland for bringing a sense of cold, calculating terror to a truly despicable character). However, the book actually turned out to be quite compelling, and when I heard they were making a movie, I was on board. 

A quick primer in case it’s been a while since you’ve thought about The Hunger Games franchise: in the original trilogy, Jennifer Lawrence plays a tribute-turned-freedom-fighter named Katniss Everdeen who ends up winning the Hunger Games and toppling the evil government regime that is forcing children to fight. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes happens before all that, when Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) is not yet the heartless ruler of Panem. He’s still a teenager at this point, and he and some of his classmates in the Capitol are assigned to serve as mentors for this year’s batch of tributes in the Hunger Games. 

Snow is paired with Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a defiant tribute with a beautiful voice from District 12 (the same district Katniss later hails from). At first, he wants to help her so she can win the games (and increase his chances of getting a scholarship to continue his education, which he couldn’t afford otherwise). Then, he starts to fall for her, and he and the other mentors begin to experience first-hand the horror of the games. 

It’s challenging to create a compelling and complex backstory for a character you know will later become an unrepentant villain, but The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (mostly) succeeds. I saw another commenter compare it to Anakin’s fall to the dark side, though I think director Francis Lawrence handles it better here than George Lucas did in Episode III. 

Blyth and Zegler play very well off each other, and I appreciate that Lucy Gray Baird has some shades of gray of her own (no pun intended). She’s a cunning survivor, though one could make the argument that this is the way the world has forced her to be. Since we already know how The Hunger Games franchise ends, you know going in that the blossoming relationship between Coriolanus and Lucy is going to culminate in tragedy, but it’s still captivating. 

There are plenty of rich secondary characters as well. Viola Davis is amazing as head gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul, playing the character with a skin-crawling touch of glee. Peter Dinklage plays Casca Highbottom, Coriolanus’s instructor, who is much more conflicted about the games. Jason Schwartzman is Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman, the ridiculous television host of the Hunger Games.

This movie is getting slightly more mixed reviews from critics than I was anticipating, but I can see how if you’re not a dedicated fan of the previous movies, this prequel may not have much to offer you. I thought it was great, and I was drawn in by the story and complex characters. I’d be curious to see how it plays with someone who has a more casual knowledge of the previous films.

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