A compelling origin story for both an infamous villain and the games he forces others to play, Hunger Games The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a riveting look at the rise of Coriolanus Snow that delivers powerful performances and visceral imagery.
Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes Review
64 years before Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteered as tribute, Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) is just an idealistic 18-year-old looking for a way to support his family after their fortunes were lost in the Districts' uprising. But his plan to win the Plinth Prize, formerly given to those top in their class, now hinges on the fate of his tribute, District 12 musician Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler). Lucy has a powerful singing voice and a charm about her that Snow quickly realizes will be a way to gain her favor amongst the elite. This also gives him ideas on how to improve the Hunger Games. He shares his thoughts with the vicious “head game-maker” Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis), hoping to garner favor with her. What he was not expecting was to fall in love with Lucy. However, it's the things we love most that destroy us and Snow faces consequences for interfering on her behalf.
Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes acts as both an origin story for the villainous Coriolanus Snow as well as The Hunger Games themselves. Director Francis Lawrence returns to the world of Panem, after overseeing all of the original films save the first one. Lawrence knows this world and that is clear in everything from the set design to the camera movements. He knows when to heighten the frenzy of a scene and when to draw back and let characters and moments breathe. But the most incredible part of Ballad are the performances of the cast, particularly those of Blyth, Davis, Peter Dinklage as Dean Casca Highbottom, and Zegler with her powerful vocals. This is the film that both Hunger Games and YA dystopian genre fans deserve after years of middling offerings.
With his blonde hair and icy blue eyes, Blyth is fascinating to watch as he first shows Snow to be an eager young man with some redeeming qualities before allowing the monster inside of him to surface. Snow himself makes for an unusual protagonist, since we all know how he ends up – the cruel and sadistic President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who delights in the misery of those forced into the games. This proves to be one of the most fascinating elements of The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes alongside the evolution of the games themselves. Knowing where he ends up puts the spotlight and pressure on Blyth to make audiences care about Snow, at least until he makes the inevitable turn to evil. Fortunately he is up for the challenge, crafting a performance that is as slick as snow itself. If you're not careful you may find yourself emphasizing with this man before his inherent nature is revealed.
Zegler plays Lucy Gray as a charming and steadfast young woman with secrets of her own. Her Southern accent is distracting at times but there is no denying her vocal prowess as she belts out songs about defiance and love. Although it is her version of “The Hanging Tree” that serves as the biggest crowd pleaser. The moments when Lucy Gray is on stage singing to her wide-eyed beau or when the two run through the poor mining town of District 12 to the lake feels reminiscent of Coal Miner's Daughter or Dirty Dancing. But just like in the case of the former, the good times were never meant to last long. When Blyth and Zegler share the screen, the force driving their characters together is practically tangible. Star-crossed lovers but like other aspects of these films, even that trope is flipped on its head.
Outside of the leads, there are other standout performances. Josh Andrés Rivera gets the meatiest role of the younger cast outside of Blyth and Zegler as Coriolanus' friend with the moral Sejanus Plinth, a former District 2 resident whose family became wealthy during the uprising. Euphoria's Hunter Schafer is Snow's cousin Tigris who protects him as a child and continues to encourage him to have a heart. The adult cast leans fully into their roles, showcasing the harshness of the individuals responsible for The Hunger Games. Davis chews the scenery as part mad scientist, part merciless matron. Her character enjoys the pains of others, constantly inventing new ways to make the poor suffer her whims. Davis is clearly enjoying playing a character that is ruthless and unhinged. Dinklage's pained and bitter creator of the games, Dean Highbottom feels like an extension of Tyrion Lannister and just as interesting to watch. Adding on to his year of playing fun characters, Jason Schwartzman equally steals the show as Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman, the first host of the Hunger Games and Panem weather man. Much like his predecessor Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) he injects untimely humor and camp into any situation with a wiggle of his eyebrows and a quirk of his head. He embodies the absurdity Tucci brought to his Flickerman but makes it his own.
Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt's script, adapted from Suzanne Collins' 2020 novel, makes for a fairly faithful adaptation, with only a few things moved around or condensed for time. Broken up into three chapters — “The Mentor,” “The Prize,” “The Peacekeeper” — Lesslie and Arndt's story is zeroed in on Snow's changing opinions on Panem, The Hunger Games, and the value of human life. The first two chapters are full of energy as the players of the 10th Annual Hunger Games both in the arena and safe in the stands are introduced. Watching Snow be somewhat admirable is alarming, yet Blyth and Lesslie and Arndt handle it well, balancing the man he could have been with the man he will ultimately become. It's fascinating to watch unfold, made even more so by the time he spends with Lucy Gray. You can't help but sit there wondering what is going to happen between these two that would drive him to be so hateful. Ballad does lose some momentum going into the third chapter with a tonal switch that signals what we all have known to be true the entire time. A crucial death occurs but it feels hurried and predictable. Despite this, the cast never waver in delivering cutting performances.
The evolution of the Games themselves acts as a secondary plot and is fascinating in its own right. The Games shown here are a stripped down version of the spectacle we know them to be. There are no fancy training sessions or runway inspired outfits. Here the cold, harsh brutality of the gladiatorial matches are shown in all their glory. However, viewership is dwindling, mostly due to the fact that the residents of Panem, even those in the Capitol, are still exhausted from the previous war. That weariness can be felt in everything you see from the buildings once shiny and grand to the outfits designed to hide the battle trauma. Costume designer Trish Summerville and production designer Uli Hanisch put in the work here painstakingly creating a world whose atrocities and harsh reality feel real.
Ultimately, Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a compelling story about one of the most hated villains in modern literature and the games that served as his platform for torture. This is a series that has never shied away on the horrific nature of the games but somehow this entry ups the ante, digging deeper into the emotional detachment of the rich. Despite being a prequel, Ballad acts as a retrospective, asking the audience what are the Hunger Games for and more importantly why are you watching if you're so appalled? It questions our motives as much as it does Snow and Lucy Gray while musing over the answer. Like the stories before it, Ballad also serves as a warning to be wary of propaganda and the lure of perceived safety. I know this has been said a lot lately, but somehow it feels especially important given the state of the world and the impact of disinformation. In a world of dystopian offerings, Ballad serves as one of the most worthy entries we have seen in years. Hunger Games fans will be more than pleased with what it has to offer.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is in theaters Friday, November 17. It is rated PG-13 for strong violent content and disturbing material with a runtime of 157 minutes.