The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is directed by Francis Lawrence (Catching Fire, Mockingjay 1 & 2) and stars Tom Blyth as young Coriolanus Snow and Rachel Zegler as District 12 tribute Lucy Gray Baird. In a story set 64 years before the first Hunger Games story written by Suzanne Collins, Snow is a bright student at the Academy of Dystopian Society Panem who has worked his way through personal sacrifice to be where he is. His tenacity is mockingly rewarded with mentoring a “lower-district” tribute for the upcoming 10th Annual Hunger Games. Lucy Gray Baird is his chosen candidate, and with Snow’s wits and her unyielding strength, the two become closer as they face deception, horrors, and corruption at every turn.
In the decade since the release of the first Hunger Games movie in 2012 and its three subsequent sequels, all starring Jennifer Lawrence, the franchise has had remarkable staying power. Its release was marked by a significant uptick in popularity for young adult fiction novels with plots rooted in speculative fiction, fantasy, and sci-fi and their subsequent adaptations, beginning with Harry Potter and reaching a saturation point between 2012 and 2015. Harry Potter was the blockbuster phenomenon that crossed immense audience boundaries, Twilight was only embraced by passionate fans (now seen as a guilty pleasure and a rich source of alcohol-fueled watch parties), and the Hunger Games was able to carve its own distinctive path. The series was never focused on complicated lore or mythology, never did it throw out impossible technology, or was brought down by unbelievable and laughable choices made by the characters. Despite the pointless splitting of the last story into two movies, the lasting effect of the novels and the film adaptations is how it developed its fascinating characters and kept the stories subversive, following along an expected route at first but taking sharp turns towards something darker.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes provides fans with an intriguing expansion on the history of Panem (a twisted and war-torn future of North America modelled on the Roman Empire) and a more complex narrative, here shifting away from the journey of Katniss Everdeen and focusing on the early life of primary antagonist Coriolanus Snow (played in the earlier films by Donald Sutherland). The Hunger Games in this time is still a primitive event, lacking the pageantry of what we see in the first two films. The Capitol of Panem is still rebuilding from its war with the other Districts; the clothes and technology resemble the 1940s and 50s. Snow and his remaining family have survived starvation and poverty with none of the power we know him to have in the previous films. What we receive from this setting is a film decidedly different from the narrative of the original tetralogy, but one that maintains the cautionary tale of how fascist ideals can so easily corrupt even the brightest minds.
Director Francis Lawrence, with his writers Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt, structures this prequel like an three-volume epic, running at nearly 2 hours and 40 minutes (a runtime as long as its wordy title) and broken up into three parts (The Mentor, The Prize, and The Peacekeeper). This structure not only allows us plentiful time to understand what kind of story we are finding ourselves in, a Hunger Games movie where the games are seen from a third-person point-of-view as Snow watches on and guides Lucy Gray to victory illegally, and then moves on for another 45 minutes into an epilogue with its own three-act structure. The plotting of the film, in terms of who is doing what, when and where, can be rather muddled throughout, as though the filmmakers were afraid to cut out any small element and risk derailing the overall narrative. One could also argue that this long resolution is excessive, and it can be something to get used to rather than an entirely natural development, but the effect is still a lingering one, ending without a clear conclusion as this reforms Coriolanus Snow as a man obsessed with an eternal ghost and haunted by its shadow on his heart.
Tom Blyth is a terrific find for the young and future dictatorial President of Panem, with striking blue eyes and a gaunt frame that is strong and commanding but easily allows us to understand there is a dark intensity fuelling him. His connection and chemistry with Zegler’s Lucy Gray (named after the aforementioned Wordsworth poem depicting a songbird lost in a snowstorm) is perhaps the highlight of the film as it is also the most crucial aspect of the story, how an eventual ruthless monster like Coriolanus Snow could at one time be someone’s true love. Zegler so easily steals the focus whenever it is Lucy Gray’s time, so perfectly cast that when this titular songbird unleashes her power, the natural majesty of Zegler’s voice becomes something overwhelming, just as it was in her debut as Maria in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. The degradation of Snow’s control over his life that already balances on a razor’s edge; taking down a naturally free and illuminating spirit like Lucy Gray is something that the actors give compelling reality towards, and the end result is unexpected and perhaps abrupt but lingers in the mind the same way that it will fester in the soul of Coriolanus Snow.
The supporting cast is also filled with terrific actors playing a mix of eccentric and emotional characters, something that the franchise has never failed to deliver. Viola Davis terrifies as a mad and sadistic scientist, Peter Dinklage is a bit typecast as an even more morose Tyrion Lannister, Josh Andrés Rivera and Hunter Schafer play the moral compasses to Coriolanus Snow, characters only destined to be defeated in their generosity and kindness, and Jason Schwartzman is all toothy grins and bad jokes echoing the carefree silliness of Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman. Rivera’s Serjanus Plinth is surprisingly given the most to do as a character, with most of the supporting cast left out of the story in its weighty third chapter, but rightly so as he cuts a commanding presence, dark eyes and strong physique, in a rewarding difference to the snakelike nature of Blyth’s Coriolanus.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a remarkable and handsome production with commendable effects, distinctive cinematography with another solid score from James Newton Howard. With a focus on exceptional costumes, sets, and hair and make-up, all on a respectable $100 million budget. While the runtime may not entirely feel earned, some of the plot’s twists and turns could be better explained on the page, and it may also require some more immediate and intimate familiarity with the previous films, this is a Hunger Games movie that delivers on spectacle and heart.
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