When I first heard that the film The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was going to be released, I was less than enthusiastic. To me, it seemed like a product of Hollywood’s latest trend of releasing seemingly endless strings of reboots and spin-offs of already successful hits. Was my inner side-braid-wearing, archery-obsessed self from 2012 secretly thrilled at the prospect of a new Hunger Games movie? Admittedly, yes. But I also didn’t want The Hunger Games to become the latest franchise to be recycled, repackaged and presented as new.
The good news is that The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is not just a regurgitation of the original Hunger Games source material, but instead a prequel set within the same universe, based on a 2020 novel of the same name from the author of the original trilogy, Suzanne Collins. In the film, the annual Hunger Games are still in their infancy. Children from every district within the dystopian society of Panem are still selected as tributes and forced to kill each other in an arena, but the Hunger Games are not yet as big of a spectacle as in the original series.
The movie focuses on the rise of the major antagonist of the original Hunger Games series, President Coriolanus Snow, and his relationship with a Hunger Games tribute, Lucy Gray Baird. Yes, it takes advantage of our early-2010s nostalgia surrounding the original franchise, but it also manages to feel new and fresh through the introduction of new characters and by setting it much earlier than the original series.
Going into the movie, I was not completely sold on the idea of a film surrounding Snow. In the original franchise, he was a calculating, evil tyrant responsible for rampant death, torture and suffering throughout the films. Not only did he keep the Hunger Games going for decades, but as leader of Panem, he kept outlying districts in a perpetual state of starvation while he and others residing in the Capitol indulged to excess.
He was cunning, calculating and wholly unlikable, so I wasn’t sure I really wanted to watch a movie that centered around him. It didn’t help that ahead of watching The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, I could only picture Snow as an old Donald Sutherland coughing blood into a handkerchief.
But just a few minutes into the film, this mental image was torn to shreds. Casting Tom Blyth as Snow was a stroke of pure genius. I can’t tell you the sheer number of Snow thirst traps that have suddenly appeared on my feed because it is embarrassingly high. The fact that Snow is shirtless for roughly the first five minutes of the movie only proves that the filmmakers knew what they were doing. Apparently, we abandon our morals at the door for a pretty face.
But beyond Snow’s casting, the plot itself was really compelling. The film is divided into three parts: The Mentor, The Prize and The Peacekeeper. It’s an unusual structure for a single movie, but I think it actually works and helps with the pacing. Previous Hunger Games films, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, spent a large part of their runtime in the arena, but the three-part structure of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes limits the time in the arena to just a third of the film. To me, this helped maintain the major arc and focus of the film; this movie is about Snow and the choices he makes that ultimately lead to the creation of his evil persona, not the atrocities of the Games.
But where I think this movie really shines is in the development of strong characters throughout the film. Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage) was particularly well portrayed. Highbottom is one of the original creators of the Hunger Games, but a plot twist surrounding his character made me seriously self-reflect on which characters I was rooting for, and whether they were actually the good guys in this story.
For the most part, I also thought Rachel Zegler’s character, Lucy Gray, was done well. Her character could easily have been reduced to a damsel-in-distress archetype, but I really appreciated that the film maintained her agency. That being said, the amount of singing she does in the film could have been cut down. I understand that Zegler can sing, but it was too much. She did not need to grab the microphone at the reaping ceremony and start singing into it or spontaneously burst into song in the arena. This film was not supposed to be a musical.
I also loved that Snow himself is a really complex, compelling character. His family is poor and starving, and his chance to save them, and himself, from eventual eviction is to win the Plinth Prize, a monetary award for being the best mentor in the Hunger Games. He has no choice but to mentor Lucy Gray and, when he becomes attached to her, he does everything he can to save her, even risking his own chances at the prize. He’s actually a pretty good person for a solid chunk of the film, so much so that you keep rooting for him, even after his first couple of murders.
Overall, this film was not perfect, but I was pleasantly surprised by how good it was. It was not just a fun movie to watch, but it was also deep, toying with the line that separates a good character from an evil one. It definitely deserves a watch if you’re a fan of The Hunger Games or just a casual viewer looking for an enjoyable way to spend two and a half hours.