A prequel to the Hunger Games franchise of movies and books, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes sings a familiar, yet ice-cold tune.
Right, so I hate to be THAT film critic, but The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (long movie, long title) should’ve been a TV series. I sympathize with Francis Lawrence, the director and “gamemaker” for this franchise adapting Suzanne Collins’ perennial teenage death tournament novels, which should’ve been the last word on that particular trope, but alas. Lawrence learned the hard way that splitting up a single book into two parts for a movie only seems to work if the title has the name of a teenage wizard somewhere in there, and even then. So with The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, why not just follow a different Hollywood trend that only works sparingly? Make the movie so long that people will feel obligated to wait and see it at home.
Peter Dinklage utters a line in this movie that suggests the idea for the Hunger Games — in which his character, Dean Highbottom, is the inventor — started off as a joke. The most extreme solution to a problem in order to begin somewhere before figuring out what you’re actually going to do about a pesky rebellion. I sometimes wonder if Suzanne Collins feels the same way about this concept as its author. If she really just sat down and knew she wanted to make a world like Panem and started with “what if teenagers were forced to murder each other in a televised battle royale once a year?” And then just kept going with it because she knew nothing else could top a hook like that.
“What are the Hunger Games for?”
So yeah it makes sense for Collins’ eponymous prequel book and subsequent movie to fill in the gaps and explain how a yearly ritual this barbaric and Shirley Jackson-approved could transform into the normalized commentary on reality television we more readily recognize. Turns out we can simply go back 64 years to when the Hunger Games have been going on for a decade and ratings have rapidly declined because they haven’t quite figured out how to get people to enjoy watching untrained child gladiators execute one another. Go figure.
We mainly follow a young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), the future president of not just Panem, but the anti-Katniss Everdeen fan club. Before he became a conniving, duplicitous war criminal, he was a somewhat empathetic, conniving, duplicitous war criminal in training. Credit to Blyth, by the way, for crafting an illusion of a performance that in the wrong hands could’ve been disastrously unwatchable. Snow’s father, a general and best friend to the creator of the Hunger Games, died during the war, and his family in the Capitol has fallen into secret destitution as a result. Snow resolves to win a coveted “Plinth Prize” at murder-is-ok academy that can secure enough money for his family to get by, which includes his cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer) and Grandmam (Fionnula Flanagan).
“Your role is to turn these children into spectacles, not survivors.”
But this year, the Plinth Prize won’t go to whoever has the highest grades. It’ll instead go to whoever’s the best “mentor” in the Hunger Games, a new position dreamed up by this generation’s gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis). The idea is that the top students at murder-is-good-actually academy each have an assigned tribute they have to groom into performers, thus creating a sports-team investment from people in the Capitol who want to use their favorite tribute win. Snow takes to this challenge like a sociopath to social media and almost instantly forms an opportunistic bond with his tribute Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a talented singer from District 12 who’s essentially the inverse of Katniss Everdeen. While Katniss was a fighter who has to perform, Lucy Gray is a performer who has to fight.
The film splits into three parts, though they don’t function as a typical three-act structure. Part 1 focuses on Snow and Lucy Gray’s introduction and ramp up to the Hunger Games, Part 2 fully commits to the Hunger Games themselves, and Part 3 follows the aftermath, though it’s more like an inflated epilogue. If any film could’ve been a two-parter or, again, a TV series, it’s this one. So many details and quirks of this world disappear in the shuffle of its moving parts, with plenty of suggestive nods to a more intricate world that winds up ambiguous. At times, this is actually a brilliant play because it allows the subtlety and dark nuance of the characters to sit with the audience, rather than beam a message right into heads…except for the times when it does do that, to be fair.
The bottom line.
What ultimately carries this movie is the infectious chemistry of the cast and how badly you want to revisit Panem again. Sure, the murder games are bleak, but they make the small touches of this alternate reality arresting in both their differences to our world and their unfortunate similarities. In keeping with my own tradition for these books, I’ve always watched the movies first, sort of accidentally. And I have a feeling that was probably for the best considering how obvious the shortchanging of certain characters come across. For example, am I supposed to adore Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera), the silver spoon rebel without a decent plan? I think I wanted to, but here we are. And yes, I’m positive Snow is best friends with Sejanus for reasons that have nothing to do with his exorbitant wealth. Sure.
For a dystopic action drama with a “modest” $100 million budget, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes looks good enough. Paces itself well enough. And pretty much always strives to just be enough. And for me that’s also enough. In a movie environment where so much blockbuster fare is content with looking the same as everything else, Collins’ world stands out like a songbird. Sure, it’s a little flat at times, but its ice-cold commentary has enough bite to lure you in for seconds.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is now playing in theaters. Watch the trailer here.
THE HUNGER GAMES: THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS & SNAKES - 7.5/10