An origin story for a true villain is always a complicated prospect, a fine needle to thread. When The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was first announced, the chief question for me was whether this was a truly necessary movie to make. Of course, on some levels, it makes sense to follow the path charted by Suzanne Collins and adapt the fourth book in her The Hunger Games series. But on others, could an origin story for the monstrous President Snow really provide a meaningful foray back into Panem?
Ultimately, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is an enjoyable enough time. It features some stellar performances from its cast. And it dusts off the world-building aspects that made the original series so popular. Huge fans of the franchise will no doubt feel pleased with this turn. However, while the movie in no way absolves Coriolanus Snow, a welcome positive, the centering of Snow and the focus on his perspective limits the narrative by design. Ultimately, the movie offers a less interesting story than others we might have seen.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes us back 64 years before Katniss Everdeen’s time. It’s clear this version of the Games is grittier and more overtly punitive, though no less harrowing, than the ones that come after it. Of course, that’s all about to change. Like the novel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes divides itself into three parts: “The Mentor,” “The Prize,” and “The Peacekeeper.” Each one details a different journey for Snow, helping to break up the narrative of a fairly lengthy movie. But in each of these chapters, Snow takes away all the wrong lessons.
From the start to the end, Snow casts himself as the victim in his own story. He’s a Capitol citizen from a well-known family who has lost their wealth and position of power. And for that, he feels wronged by the world, entitled to return to the imagined glory of his father. The constant driving motivator in his story is selfishness. Although, at times, human factors, such as love and friendship, enter into the equation, selfishness is always present and salient. Above all, Snow wants to see himself as “The Victor.” He wants to reign as the triumphant conqueror of those around him and humanity at large.
Of course, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes does not uphold this narrative as in any way good. And that is appreciated. I also don’t deny that this tale has its roots in realities we see every day. And thus, it holds a certain resonance. But in my book, Snow’s is not a story that merits the spotlight of the narrative. Coriolanus Snow is the hero of the movie, after all, in the sense that he is the center of the tale. He is the main character. Nearly three hours of cinematic real estate are all spent on him. But, at the end of the day, he’s neither particularly complicated nor that special at all, just another angry white man taking his unhappiness out on the world.
Beyond that, the focus on Snow’s journey detracts from the structural themes of The Hunger Games‘ world. Shrinking the story down to, by and large, the villainy of one man turns us away from taking a look at the larger mechanisms at work in Panem. While The Hunger Games‘ focus was on the idea of rebellion, here we end up in a place that thinks more about an individual’s struggle with his own morality than the huge conflicts taking place in the wider world. While these focuses do feed into Snow’s story, they are mostly relegated to subplots. This, of course, may simply not have been the aim of the movie. But it feels as though had the script shifted away from Snow and toward his best friend Sejanus Plinth, played by Josh Andrés Rivera, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes could have found a more interesting balance.
While Snow’s character veers toward predictable, Sejanus Plinth’s is fascinating. Sejanus is District-born but from a family wealthy enough to buy their way into the Capitol. He understands the cruelty of the Games in a way that none of his now-peers can. And he finds himself with a foot in both worlds, although he can no longer fit precisely in either place. Unlike Snow, who occasionally gets referred to as a “rebel,” Sejanus actually acts in meaningful ways that evolve his character and the world around him. Unfortunately, his story remains on the sidelines.
All of this said, the movie’s chief strength lies in the superb acting of its whole cast. Tom Blyth, as mentioned, delivered an excellent performance as he shifts Snow from something akin to morally grey to deeply evil. And when his last scene rolls around, you can practically see Donald Sutherland on screen. A true feat. Rachel Zegler, meanwhile, shines as Lucy Gray Baird, the clever singer who manages to emerge from the Hunger Games as the victor. Zegler’s singing really adds something special to the movie. And her character is just the right amount of charming, tenacious, wounded, and mysterious.
Additionally, Josh Andrés Rivera absolutely steals the show as Sejanus Plinth. Viola Davis is exquisite as Dr. Volumnia Gaul, the head Gamemaker who is also in charge of the Capitol’s experimental weapons division. Her devastating deviousness and exquisite fashion make her by and far one of the best characters from this prequel. And, of course, Peter Dinklage gives an excellent turn as Casca Highbottom. Highbottom is the creator of the Hunger Games and Dean of the Capitol’s Academy. He’s a character very reminiscent of Tyrion Lannister. But hey, if it ain’t broke…
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes also, of course, adds to the world built by The Hunger Games in ways that will likely satisfy fans. We get to see more of the inner mechanisms of the Capitol’s elite and are introduced to The Academy, where new generations of the powerful are constructed. This Hunger Game prequel further takes us beyond the arena and the treachery of the Capitol. It gives us a taste of how life in the Panem’s Districts persevered despite the terrible circumstances surrounding them. Some of the best scenes take place in District 12, watching Lucy Gray Baird perform to her home audience as they laugh and dance. These moments of levity juxtaposed against the horrors of the early Hunger Games sell the emotional arcs of the movie.
Finally, for the curious, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes contains a multitude of The Hunger Games Easter eggs. Among others, Lucy Gray Baird, of course, writes The Hanging Tree, a song that will later have a great impact on Katniss. And Katniss herself comes up, but not the person. Instead, “Katniss” appears in plant form as a “swamp potato.” And the movie takes care to mention that the Katniss is not quite yet ripe yet. But it does feature during an important moment of plot.
Ultimately, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes could have delivered a more compelling narrative, but it does do the job of a franchise movie and bring us back to a familiar world so we can once more take a look around.