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The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes ★★★★



Director: Francis Lawrence

Cast: Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Viola Davis, Josh Andrés Rivera, Peter Dinklage, Jason Schwartzman

Released: 17th November 2023

As somebody who grew up with the Hunger Games saga, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes was one of my most anticipated films of the year. As a fan of the homonymous book it is based on, I also wanted nothing more from the new film than the gripping and exciting story about a morally grey character that the Hunger Games audience is more than familiar with. As the film goes on, it keeps asking us one question: who is – or was – the man we have come to know as a villain in the Hunger Games franchise?

The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is set 64 years before the main saga in the Capitol, still shaken by the recent uprising. In this version of Panem, a young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) attempts to keep up appearances with his pretentious and well-off classmates as he attends his final year at the prestigious Academy in the Capitol. At home, Coriolanus and his cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer) struggle economically as the once wealthy and well-respected Snow family is now running out of resources after the death of Coriolanus’ father. As the 10th Hunger Games approaches, Coriolanus and his classmates are all assigned one tribute to their mentor as their final assignment before graduating to attract the Capitol’s attention towards the Games. Coriolanus gets Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), the female tribute for District 12 and part of a nomadic music group, the Covey. 

During The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakesas Coriolanus helps Lucy Gray prepare for the Games and win the public’s attention, the two care for each other. For him, there is not only Lucy Gray’s life on the line but also a significant monetary prize that would restore the Snow family’s prosperity. As the film goes on, we see the Coriolanus’ classmates’ reactions to the Games, including Clementia Dovecote (Ashley Liao) and Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera), who is particularly affected due to his personal connection to District 2, where he was born. Much like the students are involved in the games, so are the adults in the Capitol who participate in the very making of the Games, namely the Head Gamemaker Dr Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis), Lucretius Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman), the first television host for this edition of the games, and the Dean of the Academy, Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage) credited as the inventor of the Hunger Games.  

One of the strongest elements of The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is its brilliant acting: everyone in the cast delivers incredible performances, with a stellar Davis in the shoes of a menacing and appalling villain. Blyth, in particular, stands out in a star-making performance: if we care about his character, it is also thanks to his dedicated and layered performance as Coriolanus. Similarly, Rivera is exceptional in his re-rendition of Sejanus, one of my favourite characters in the novel, which, with its unbendable moral code, seems to be a direct juxtaposition to Coriolanus. However, I would have liked to see more about the other characters, such as Tigris and Clementia. For the short time, they were on screen, both Liao and Schafer managed to create compelling characters I desperately wanted to know more about. 

Zegler is also a powerhouse: her performance as Lucy Gray is the beating heart of The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes. Just like in the film, her character emotionally resonates with people all over Panem with her singing; Zegler’s live performance of each song Lucy Gray sings creates a strong connection between us and this character and her fate. The music is such a key element to the entire story that it is a joy to see how it was incorporated into the film by creating an entirely new score with Lucy Gray’s songs, historically indebted to old Scottish ballads and Southern music. At the same time, this is mixed with melodies and sounds we know well from the Hunger Games franchise, such as the familiar and iconic “Horn of Plenty” that has come to signify the Hunger Games themselves in the franchise.  

The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes also introduces us to a Panem we are not familiar with, one where the Capitol is beginning to recover from the war and where the games are just at their beginning. One of its most significant achievements is visually creating an evident past for the Capitol that is familiar to Hunger Games fans and distant enough to belong to an earlier chapter of Panem’s history compared to the main saga. The cinematography and special effects are both essential in this as they deliver a glorious and fitting return to Panem and a beautifully haunting arena for the Hunger Games to take place in. 

In a world made of opposites, where we see an apparent duality between the Capitol and the districts, between fighting and performing, and between personal feelings and entertainment, our main characters all embody some combination of these opposites. Still, by the end of The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, I could not help but wonder which side of the coin would eventually prevail: the hunger for power or the desire for freedom. In the case of Coriolanus, fans of the Hunger Games saga very well know where he will end up, but we are still incredibly invested in his journey and character development. 

The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is at its best as a character study when it delivers a dangerously alluring portrayal of this man we initially can’t help but root for. In the beginning, Coriolanus is set up as the underdog, someone who has to succeed for his family despite his circumstances. Still, as the film goes on, we see what Coriolanus can do to get what he wants. He may start as Coriolanus, but by the film’s end, he entirely becomes the future President Snow, who leaves nothing but an array of death and poison all around him. In the film, Coriolanus reminds us that “snow lands on top”, but when it does, can we genuinely rejoice to see him succeed?

On a broader level, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes analyses life at the Capitol, made of corruption and ostentation of riches, and a cautionary tale on what power can do to someone. Similarly, it seems to warn us about the importance of entertainment and new media, which can be manipulated to deliver a specific version of the events. As a dystopic film, it is a warning that still rings true today. As the Capitol is determined to “turn these children into spectacle, not survivors”, we gain an insight into how the Hunger Games became so popular in the Capitol, partially thanks to Coriolanus himself, whose legacy in the Games’ development will reflect directly in what we see in the Hunger Games saga. 

If there is one fault to be found in The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakesit is in its third act, which is the least impactful and most underwhelming in the film. In the last part, the movie seems to lose itself a little bit: for the entire first half of the previous chapter, the stakes feel a lot less clear and imminent, which makes the film feel its runtime as it struggles to keep up the pacing and tension we experience in the first two acts. However, it ends up paying off as an excellent set-up for the chilling conclusion of the film.

The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a strong adaptation of its source material, despite some necessary changes and omissions to adapt to the film format, and an even stronger film that holds up very well to the rest of the Hunger Games saga. Not only that, but it also serves as an interesting origin story and, on some level, a tribute to what we see in the main films of the franchise. While most of the characters in The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes are not in the Hunger Games film, everything that we see in this comes back in some form in the very structure of Panem and the Games that we are introduced to at the beginning of the franchise. 

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