Hunger Games review: Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a winning return

The first Hunger Games film was released in 2012. It sparked an entire revolution.

Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books were already bestsellers at that point, but the success of the movie adaptation cemented their cultural impact, ushering in an era of female-led action movies — and more significantly, a huge wave of young adult dystopian stories, in print and on film and TV. The original Hunger Games’ brilliance has been lost with every imitator: the world-building genius, the tragic protagonist story, and subverted characters tropes. The oversaturation of the market and lack of innovative ideas eventually led to a decline in this trend.

In 2020, Collins returned with a new book in the Hunger Games world — this time a prequel with an origin story for the original trilogy’s villain, Panem President Coriolanus Snow. The fans initially reacted with skepticism and outrage, with some citing the choice of protagonist as “tone-deaf.” But when the book finally came out, readers remembered why the Hunger Games trilogy kickstarted a trend: Collins is a great storyteller who manages the themes of oppression and rebellion deftly.

Like the book it’s based on, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes speaks to the sheer brilliance of Collins’ world-building, and the sharp way she tackles inequality and authoritarianism. It’s a reminder of just how good YA dystopia stories can be when they’re done well. By changing the viewpoint to demonstrate the power of propaganda and how easily people are radicalized to view others as subhuman, the discussion around YA Dystopia is adapted to reflect contemporary anxieties. It’s a sharp, exciting movie — one that finally gives YA dystopias the ending the genre trend deserves.

[Ed. note: This review contains some setup spoilers for The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, as well as spoilers for the Hunger Games trilogy.]

Snow handing Lucy a rose outside the train station

Murray Close/Lionsgate

The director Francis Lawrence, who directed the three previous Hunger Games films. The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes isn’t just an origin story for Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), the formidable dictator who serves as the main villain for most of the main Hunger Games trilogy. It’s also an origin for the Games themselves, showing how they started as a brutal yet simple punishment for rebel factions in Panem and became the grand spectacle seen in the mainline Hunger Games trilogy. At the same time they’re changing, Snow is changing too — from an ambitious, cunning, yet mostly benign 18-year-old to a hardened, cutthroat politician.

This story is set more than 60-years before the Hunger Games, with very different Games. They still involve forcing the impoverished outlying Districts to send 24 child Tributes to the Capitol, where they’re forced to kill each other in a public arena. Before the match begins, they’re kept in cages like cattle for slaughter. The Capitol is a sham. caresImagine the Games as they are in the movies. The Capitol denizens are war-weary and in the process of rebuilding, so watching children brutally murder each other isn’t high on their list of priorities.

With viewership waning, Snow and the rest of his graduating class are assigned Tributes and ordered to find ways of increasing the Games’ popularity. A scholarship will be awarded to the student who has created a winning tribute. Snow’s once wealthy family is now in deep, secret poverty. She needs to win. He ends up with the District 12 Tribute, a musician named Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), whose natural flair for showmanship inspires him to make the Tributes into a spectacle, turning them into larger-than-life icons and letting the Capitol citizens get to know them so they become hooked and invested in their chosen Tribute’s fate. Snow and Baird are drawn to each other, though it’s never entirely clear who’s using who in their twisted game.

Snow leers over Lucy Gray

Murray Close/Lionsgate

The main Hunger Games films are not the same. Songbirds & Snakes The film has less action. It also shows less of the Games. The Games are less glamorous than they were for the original Hunger Games stars Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson. Songbirds & Snakes’ early proto version of the Games doesn’t take place in a high-tech arena — they’re in an abandoned stadium. No fancy outfits or Tribute Parades.

But that’s the point. In this first era, the Games have been stripped of their gaudy adornments: bleakness, brutality, rawness, and sadness. Capitolians, still reeling from their wartime traumas find it difficult to watch. And that’s exactly why Lucy Gray’s charisma sparks with Snow, inspiring him to draw it out and urge the Gamemakers to focus more on the Tributes and their stories.

It’s fascinating to see how the Games as we’re familiar with them came to be. The movie takes place decades before the main trilogy, and it’s especially compelling to see that conveyed not just through the less showy Games, but also through set design. In the original films, Capitol was a modern city with sleek screens. But in the prequel the city is retrofuturistic, complete with chrome and black-and white televisions. There’s also a touch of Brutalist architecture that helps emphasize the bleak postwar nature of the Capitol. The little world building touches are just as important in the book and original movie.

The in-world logo for the Hunger Games on retro TV screens while employees of the games mull about

Lionsgate Image

What about the story? Songbirds & SnakesIt is an extremely faithful adaptation, although the ending has been streamlined. Blyth manages to walk the fine line between being a sympathetic villain and an antihero. He’s a charming liar and an expert manipulator, to the point where fans just might want to root for him — before he shows his true colors, his selfish and Machiavellian nature. While Zegler plays the role of charismatic songstress well, she doesn’t sell Lucy Gray’s cunning as much as Blyth sells Snow’s. Viola Davis is the cruel Gamemaker Head Dr. Volumnia Gaul. The rest of the supporting cast are also on their game. Davis gives her all to this twisted genius who is convinced that humanity’s core is dark and depraved.

The real question is: What makes a person? Songbirds & Snakes so brilliant is that it’s exactly what the YA dystopia genre needed. It’s a reminder of why it had so much impact in the first place, but more importantly, it’s a final piece that flips the perspective and asks us all — the viewers, readers, and the writers of the Hunger Games imitators — why we even liked the genre in the first place.

Lucy Gray looks shocked as she walks forward in a crowd

Murray Close/Lionsgate

As the YA dystopia craze was tapering off, it became easy to snark at the derivative books and movies that only took on the set dressing of the Hunger Games books — a female protagonist good at fighting, an evil government running some oppressive yet cool gimmick, a hot love interest and a probable love triangle. But The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes emphasizes that the reason Collins’ original trilogy was so compelling was because it went beyond those simple signifiers. Francis Lawrence and Suzanne Collins strip away the spectacle of the Games — the set dressing so many pale imitators relied on — and show us that the Hunger Games was always about how oppressors will use entertainment, presentation, and propaganda to enforce inequality as the norm.

Collins’ book and Lawrence’s movie don’t redo the action of the Hunger Games events; they dissect them, then force us to sit on the Capitol side of the equation. It’s as if they want to know what made us so interested in the love triangles, dresses with pretty patterns, and themed arenas. We’ve always been the spectators, after all, watching Katniss’ story from a safe distance. The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes The film shows what happens when you get carried away with propaganda, luxury and promises of safety. In that way, it’s a fitting end to the franchise — and a fitting end to the way the genre evolved into a beast of its own.

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes On November 17, the movie “The Avengers” will arrive in theaters.

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