The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
The Hunger Games arrived in cinemas during a popularity spike in Young Adult fiction kickstarted by Twilight. Where other franchises like Divergent fizzled out, The Hunger Games films remain thrilling examples of this genre via its star-making turn for Jennifer Lawrence, as well as its rich themes of authoritarianism and the spectacularisation of violence. Now, we return to the world of Panem with this new prequel film, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.
Before he became a tyrannical president, Colarianus Snow (Tom Blyth) was a young student trying to make ends meet. Since the passing of his father, his family has been living on the edge of poverty. An opportunity arises when he is made a mentor in the 10th Hunger Games, an annual ceremony held by The Capitol in which, as punishment for a failed revolution, each of Panem’s districts sends children, known as Tributes, into an arena to fight to the death until only one remains. The mentor of this victor will obtain great wealth, but Snow’s odds start poorly when his Tribute ends up being a girl from the impoverished District 12 – Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler).
Surprisingly, Lucy Gray catches Capitol attention when she sings in protest of her selection. This gives Snow the idea of turning what’s meant to be a punishment into a spectacle, proposing several additions to the games as a means of drawing in higher viewership. Part of these additions is getting to know Lucy Gray personally so that he may arm her with the skills to win. Yet this process tests Snow’s very soul, forcing him to choose between freedom and power.
Like the other Hunger Games films, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is adapted from the book of the same name by Suzanne Collins. It’s a rather meaty novel with lots of character-based nuances to consider within its framework. Director Francis Lawrence even considered splitting this film into two, like Mockingjay. The sheer volume of the narrative shows that, even at 157 minutes, there’s a lot going on, some of which is underdeveloped – a consequence of trying to do as much as possible. The third act suffers hugely as a result, yet there is no denying the awe of the overall craft.
The film plays like a period biopic despite its sci-fi genre. The costume and production designs, with their more muted colours and traditionalist stone architecture, create a historical feel to the worldbuilding as if the film is reliving a suppressed memory. Many of the sets are gritty and scarred, generating the feeling of a world healing and evolving but not necessarily transforming into something better. As the grotesquely vibrant colours in the costuming of the Capitol students and Gamemaker Volumina Gaul (Viola Davis) demonstrate, this is still a world where elitism thrives, and avarice is only getting worse.
Panem is a capitalist dystopia in which the proletariat of the districts are made to “earn” their right to live in front of the bourgeoisie, who are literally turning suffering into entertainment. Where the games in the original films were shown from the perspective of the Tributes, much of the action this time is shown via the viewers watching the events as they unfold live. The originals produced spellbinding action – Catching Fire has one of the best uses of IMAX put to film – but one could argue that the violence, and thus the shock factor, had to be watered down for commercial purposes. By showing the horror, disgust, and, most disturbingly, glee of the Capitol audience drinking in the animalistic sadism of children murdering each other, this film’s political themes on class inequality and graphic sensationalism hit with the explosive force of a grenade. The close-quarters cinematography adopted to capture the reactions of both the Tributes and the viewers only adds to the chilling power of these sequences.
When the film is based in and around the games, it is excellent. It’s thematically and aesthetically gripping, with nail-biting suspense conveyed through the narrative twists and character choices. Yet, in accordance with the book, the film eventually leaves the games and sees Snow in a new environment for the final act of the story. This portion isn’t as strong as it seems, eager to get through the plot as swiftly as possible rather than bask in consequence or meaning. Snow seems to go from one extreme to another with rushed urgency as a result. Furthermore, the class-based themes it explores were dissected more effectively in prior scenes through the sheer ugliness of the Capitol’s shallow emotional attachment to the Tributes.
This sadly leaves a frustrating taste, especially since Snow’s character arc from ambitious to power-hungry is strong on paper. However, the performances make even this underwhelming stretch of the film engaging. Tom Blyth combines youthful desire with a hidden ruthlessness that slowly but surely rises to the surface as this conflicted protagonist gradually morphs into the villain he will eventually become. Rachel Zegler continues to take Hollywood by storm as the vivacious and indomitable Lucy Gray, whose singing and expressive range are the film’s heart. Other standouts include Viola Davis’s sinisterly gurning turn as Gaul and Josh Andres Rivera as a rare dissenting voice who protests the Hunger Games.
Maybe a story as large as The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes would’ve been better suited to two films – it certainly feels like two crammed into one. This, unfortunately, robs it of reaching the heights of the best in the Hunger Games franchise. However, fans need not fret, for when it flies, it soars. The performances, production design, cinematography, themes and musical score are all on top form, merging to create an experience as vocal in its condemnation of elitism as it is captivated by its characters. It may not always sing like a songbird when taken as a whole, but The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes still packs a venomous bite at its best.