THE STORY – Years before he becomes the tyrannical president of Panem, 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow remains the last hope for his fading lineage. With the 10th annual Hunger Games fast approaching, the young Snow becomes alarmed when he’s assigned to mentor Lucy Gray Baird from District 12. Uniting their instincts for showmanship and political savvy, they race against time to ultimately reveal who’s a songbird and who’s a snake.
THE CAST – Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Josh Andrés Rivera, Hunter Schafer, Jason Schwartzman, Peter Dinklage & Viola Davis
THE TEAM – Francis Lawrence (Director), Michael Lesslie & Michael Arndt (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 157 Minutes
“The Hunger Games” trilogy is, arguably, one of the most remarkable narratives of the young-adult dystopia genre. The franchise deftly delves and challenges the ideas of government, authority, control, hope, and power – all channeled through the perspective of a teenage girl thrust into the reluctant role of a symbol of rebellion. The film adaptations, spanning four films released from 2012-2014, took the world by storm, garnering critical acclaim and adoration among fans. After the success of the trilogy and films, author Suzanne Collins released a prequel novel that also became an immediate bestseller, so much so that it seemed inevitable for a film adaptation to one day be released, and now, it’s arrived with “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes.”
“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” doesn’t take the traditional franchise spin-off route by centering around one of the popular supporting characters of the franchise, like Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) or Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). Instead, Collins chooses the franchise’s villain, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), as her protagonist and shows how he will become the ultimate antagonist one day. Set sixty-four years prior to the events of “The Hunger Games,” the narrative introduces us to a young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), a brilliant yet economically disadvantaged student in a Capital where the Hunger Games are in decline, both in terms of ratings and popularity. In a last-ditch effort to reinvigorate the event, the top 24 students are assigned to mentor a tribute for the 10th annual Hunger Games, where the best mentor earns a full scholarship to the prestigious Capital University. The students are randomly assigned a tribute, and Coriolanus, desperate for money to support his family, is assigned to the District 12 female tribute, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a young, beautiful, defiant singer and musician who may not be physically imposing but can charm the crowd with her talent.
Director Francis Lawrence, who is returning to the franchise after directing “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and both “Mockingjay” films, feels at home with this franchise as he adeptly immerses us in the world of Panem. The scope of “Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” is epic and grand. Panem, and the Capitol, in particular, is still figuring out its identity, but a sense of authoritative ideology is palpable. The production design accurately extends upon a world that matches the tone of the original films while simultaneously showcasing a society and culture that eventually turns into the Capitol and Panem as a whole. Everything is very bare-bones, as there is no gilded infrastructure that audiences have come to associate with the Capitol. But the class divide and propaganda between “Capital” and “District” individuals has already begun. The young students of the Capitol already see themselves as better and far above those from the District. This is apparent when the tributes enter the Capitol and are treated as animals, from being transported via cargo trains to being denied food and a change of clothes and locked in a cage to be put on display for Capitol citizens to look at and mock as they await their fate. The tributes aren’t treated as “celebrities” or “talent” as they were in the original films. In the 10th Hunger Games, tributes are simply a form of payment.
In addition to the Capitol finding its identity, The Hunger Games is as well. The games don’t resemble what the audiences are used to in the original films. There is no forest or jungle to hide in – the arena is just a vacant, enclosed space that consists of a few sharp objects. There are little to no tricks, just starving and terrified children who are forced to fight to the death. This environment immediately raises the stakes for the tributes and results in surprisingly violent sequences. Taking place in the middle of the long 157-minute film, The Hunger Games is the best part of the film: a terrifying and nail-biting experience that will leave you on the edge of your seat until a victor is called.
The cast admirably turns in solid performances. Zegler is captivating as Baird, the strong-willed performer who accidentally breaks the games by connecting with the audience. Blyth is also an engaging lead as a young Snow who uses Baird’s charisma to her fullest potential and learns much about himself and Panem through her. However, it is difficult to imagine this character as a young President Snow, who was such a menacing and composed villain. Blyth’s Snow is reactive and genuinely cares for Baird’s survival, so much so that he is willing to go against the Games themselves. It seems that he is sometimes against the Capitol and the Games and allies more with rebels, which is the antithesis of the character in the original franchise. It seems unnatural that a character as evil as President Snow would ever question or be against the Capitol or The Hunger Games. Another member of the cast, Josh Andrés Rivera, has excellent moments as Sejanus, Snow’s best friend who moves to the Capitol from District 2 and despises everything The Hunger Games stands for. Peter Dinklage brings his cunningly dry attitude and intellectualism to the drunkard Casca “Cas” Highbottom, Dean of the Academy (who stands in Snow’s way of advancement) and the original creator of The Hunger Games. Academy Award-winner Viola Davis, in her portrayal of Head Game Maker Dr. Volumnia Gaul, infuses the film with a wickedly captivating performance, and Jason Schwartzman amuses as a younger Lucky Flickerman channeling the best qualities Stanley Tucci brought to the role in the original films.
“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” is a delightful and expansive reentry into the world of Panem. But with a massively overlong runtime, the film occasionally struggles with pacing issues, especially within the third act, where there is a distinct shift in narrative tone. Despite this flaw, the world-building remains opulent and offers an insight into how the games came to be and how a government manipulates its populace, predicated on arbitrary distinctions such as borders. Above all, “The Ballad of Songbird & Snakes” is an impressive movie-going experience (IMAX is recommended) that offers a thought-provoking discussion on how society and ideology can influence someone — a central theme of the franchise. With that said, fans of “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” and the trilogy will not be disappointed in this latest adaptation.