"The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" stars Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Josh Andrés Rivera, Hunter Schafer, Jason Schwartzman, Peter Dinklage, and Viola Davis. Released on November 17, 2023, the film has a young man mentoring a female tribute from District 12.
The film is directed by Francis Lawrence, who also directed films such as "Constantine," "I Am Legend," "Water for Elephants," and "Red Sparrow." It is based on the 2020 novel by Suzanne Collins and serves as a prequel to "The Hunger Games". It's been over a decade since the world experienced the most deadly competition, "The Hunger Games," unfolding on the big screen. It's as unsettling as watching a cute animal be tortured to death by its predators, but storytelling-wise, it's one of the better young adult film adaptations to date. If you count the sequels, "The Hunger Games" is a rare YA franchise that accomplishes what no other YA movie can do: invoke heart-wrenching emotion in its characters, themes, and cinematic quality. It was also responsible for establishing Jennifer Lawrence as a big-time movie star due to her superb portrayal of Katniss Everdeen, whose poignant journey ended with "Mockingjay Part 2".
However, that didn't mean the saga also concluded. Three years ago, during the harsh COVID-19 days, the franchise's author, Suzanne Collins, expanded the Hunger Games universe with a prequel novel centering on a young Coriolanus Snow. While reception was mixed at first, the book was successful enough to maintain the reputation of Collins and her beloved dystopian franchise. Of course, the book's success meant a film adaptation is soon to follow, giving us the perfect excuse to experience the heartbreaking and thematically disturbing world of the "Hunger Games" on the screen again. With Francis Lawrence returning to compete in the games alongside a new cast, does the prequel have the strength to survive its YA film trappings? Let's return to Panem and find out.
The story takes place in a post-war dystopia called Panem, 64 years before the events of "The Hunger Games". The film centers on a young Coriolanus Snow (Blyth) before he became the tyrannical president. Snow is determined to rebuild his family's fading lineage affected by the war by participating in the 10th annual Hunger Games. However, Snow gets more than he bargained for when he's tasked to mentor Lucy Gray Baird (Zegler), a tribute from District 12 and a member of a traveling musician group called the Covey. During the competition, Snow and Lucy Gray form a relationship that eventually defies the odds set by those around them, including Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Davis), the head Gamemaker. However, the revelation involving the two will reveal who is the songbird and who is the snake.
I'm not the person who thinks YA films are the next big thing for cinema regarding their qualities. However, "The Hunger Games" was one of the few occasions that made me think otherwise. The adaptations of Collins's "Hunger Games" novels are outstanding movies filled with incredible talents and emotional depth, showcasing that films based on books for teens can cater to both sides of their audience if the effort exists. Considering my respect toward the films, this left me hoping that "Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" would accomplish that similar feat, especially with the involvement of Francis Lawrence, who took over the franchise from the first film's director, Gary Ross. After experiencing the prequel, I can confirm that it did just that, much to my heartbreak.
For those who haven't read or even watched any installment of the "Hunger Games" series, the best way I can describe "The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" is that it's equivalent to losing your best friend in a tragic accident numerous times. It's haunting to witness the violence, but it's also very depressing. "The Hunger Games" isn't something you would want to bring your partner to during date night unless both of you are fans of the series. "The Hunger Games" and its successors may have some bright spots, but they also have depressing ones that chew up those pleasant moments and spit them out like pieces of gum. "The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" is no exception to this theory, as it provides a tragic backstory of a man's heartbreaking transformation from a believer to who he is in the main installments.
However, its depressing tone is what helps "The Hunger Games" become an emotionally compelling franchise regarding its themes of class discrimination, war, social inequality, and violence against children. Unsurprisingly, "The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" understands this, resulting in a well-rounded and refreshingly emotional installment packed with quality and talent. Was it a perfect adaptation of Collins's prequel novel? Far from it, but it still packs a tearful punch that'll get most, if not all, of the fans feeling the blues. While it does focus on the Hunger Games competition like the previous installments, "The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" is more about the decent of Snow's noble spirit amid the cultural clash between the Capitol and the district tributes. You'll immediately know what I'm talking about if you read the novel. If not, let's just say that this journey wasn't pleasant, which may alienate several non-fans of the book series regarding its narrative choices.
Then again, I haven't followed the books as much as others, yet I found the film poignant and majestically diverting. Based on my experience with the film adaptations, I knew how Coriolanus Snow would turn out in the end, but that doesn't make it less engaging. This is due to Francis Lawrence's direction, which provided a healthy amount of action and drama into the film's emotional stakes and characters, mostly the latter. Lawrence has a great eye for immersive yet sentimentally bleak cinematic quality, which is part of why I enjoyed the "Hunger Games" sequels and "I Am Legend". "The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" further proves that the director hasn't missed a step in his vision, especially considering Jo Willems's cinematography. I also appreciate his approach to the film's intense action sequences, mainly in the Hunger Games competition, which were nicely shot and edited without relying on shaky camera work and unnecessary gore.
The screenplay by Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt was also well-written regarding the franchise's faithfulness and themes. However, it also has some flaws that aren't in the film's favor. One of them is the runtime, which clocked in at more than two and a half hours, with most of its length spent on the character-driven drama. Despite its respectable pacing and engaging narrative, this latest game ran a bit longer than it should have, especially since the Hunger Games occurs in the second act. The other issue that I heard most critics talk about before watching the film was the ending. It's not as bad as they made it out to be, but I found a couple of moments I thought could've been told differently to maintain its emotional pull. Regardless, it's a good conclusion that emphasizes its distressing tone and Snow's development.
As for the film's cast, it's unsurprising to see them put a lot of effort into embodying their characters, with some being more humane than others. Tom Blyth, a face I haven't seen before until now, did a surprisingly great job making the young Coriolanus Snow sympathetic and wholesome through his sentimental performance. Yes, Snow was a heartless president in the main installments, but after watching this film, I surprisingly felt bad that he turned out that way. That's how I knew Blyth accomplished this task of providing a heart inside the franchise's antagonist. Rachel Zegler was also terrific as Lucy Gray Baird, further showcasing how far she has come since her musical and YouTube days. Plus, her singing was an absolute delight to my ears. Peter Dinklage and Jason Schwartzman also delivered some great moments as Casca Highbottom and Lucretius Flickerman, respectively. Finally, we have Viola Davis as the sinister Dr. Gaul. It bears repeating that Davis is an incredible actress who can play approachable and kindhearted characters and make her villainous ones uncomfortable and frightening. Her gratifying performance as Gaul is another example of the latter.
Besides the stories, themes, and characters, "The Hunger Games" is also known for its world-building, ranging from a futuristic dystopian ruled by the Capitol to the tranquil fields of Panem's districts. This is mainly due to its production designs, which brought this harsh and often fascinating reality to the screen. I'm glad to say that this immersive and visually stunning world of the "Hunger Games" remains intact regarding its settings. The costume designs were also outstanding, as they were in the previous installments, which left me baffled that it still wasn't recognized at the Oscars. Then, we have the musical score by James Newton Howard, who's been the franchise's lucky charm since the first film. If you like his sentimental music in the previous films, you'll feel the same way about his music in the prequel.
Overall, "The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" survives its YA trappings to deliver another emotionally compelling and well-acted spectacle that expands the franchise's dystopian universe. It can be a bit bloated regarding its length, and the ending may not have reached the same heights as the rest of the movie. Regardless, the film retains the series's reputation with the same amount of heartbreak and quality that made its predecessors effective YA adaptations. With its stunning cast, strong direction for its story and themes, thrilling action, and great uses of production and costume designs, the odds for this ballad are definitely in its favor. It's worth checking out if you're a fan of the "Hunger Games" franchise, whether from the books or the movies. However, if you're tired of films that make you feel depressed, you're better off watching the new "Trolls" movie to liven up your spirits.