THE HUNGER GAMES: THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS AND SNAKES Review: Satisfying, If You Know What You Want
Directed by Francis Lawrence, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is the brand new prequel to The Hunger Games saga (2012-2015). It is set just over 60 years before Katniss Everdeen volunteers as a tribute in the 74th Hunger Games.
The film follows Coriolanus Snow, who fans may know to later in the series become the President. The Ballad is his origin story, and in a way, that of the Games as an annual televised child bloodbath. The prequel was based on a book by Suzanne Collins, published in 2020.
Everything takes place in a dystopian country called Panem, divided into 12 districts and a flourishing Capitol. As a result of a district uprising, the Capitol devises the Hunger Games. Once a year, two children from each district are randomly selected, placed in an arena, and forced to fight to the death. Save, of course, for one victor. The Ballad begins with this system ten years in the running, with the pressing concern that the people of Panem are losing interest in the Games.
Enter Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), a star pupil at the prestigious Capitol Academy. He is of a noble name, but hiding his family's lack of fortune. His classmates and him are each assigned a tribute to mentor, in a governmental effort to add spectacle to the slaughter. Snow lucks out with a girl from District 12, the poorest district, who sings, defiantly, when she is selected as a tribute: Lucy Gray (Rachel Zegler).
The Ballad is shy of three hours long and is divided into three parts. Part 1: the mentor, chronicles Coriolanus and Lucy growing closer. Part 2: the Hunger Games, is self-explanatory. Lastly, Part 3: the peacekeeper. Part 1 is interesting, if self-indulgent at times. There is a fun retro aesthetic that characterizes and dates it as a prequel, and it serves as an engaging backdrop as Snow weasels his way to success unconventionally. It is hard not to root for him.
Part 2, although at the core of the story, is somewhat disappointing to watch. Ironic, given that this is what Snow is trying to make happen in the plot. The set-up focused so much on Lucy and Coriolanus that the other characters, dying brutally, do not provoke emotion.
By far the most interesting one is Reaper, from District 11, and he isn't developed. Both him and a girl from District 8 make big gestures a la Katniss, falling flat this time. The arena they are trapped in is not very stimulating. Snow even enters that setting, and the audience does not feel that he is in real danger. The narrating host, Flickerman, has the best lines, showcasing moments of humour.
Part 3 was the most compelling, with Snow out of his element in District 12, out of power and prestige, and hair. The tone was incredibly different: picture Taylor Swift's "Mean" music video but Eminem is in it.
Music, as a matter of fact, did a lot of the heavy lifting in The Ballad, cuing sadness that was not in the room. Rachel Zegler can actually sing, but you'll wish she wouldn't. The man next to me groaned each time she sang, and each time there was a glaringly obvious reference to Katniss' story. I concur.
Tom Blyth is a revelation. He delivers a moving portrayal of a difficult man. With this performance, the film succeeds in painting Snow's trajectory from an ambitious boy to the villain he becomes. He killed, he loved, he lost, he betrayed.
The same treatment is not afforded to Lucy Gray, a self-described mystery. The ending certainly seems to suggest so. One of the winning feats of The Hunger Games, both in the books and original movies, was its depiction of Katniss' trauma from the Games.
In contrast, Lucy Gray is nonchalantly jumping into lakes. Viola Davis was also made into a caricature (she even wears red gloves), yet she makes it work. The other big names in the cast are Peter Dinklage, with a Game of Thrones fantasy pull, and Euphoria's Hunter Schafer, both relegated to the background.
The Ballad, with its title cards, manages to feel like three movies. The costume design was a pleasure to look at, so I would not have been opposed to smaller fragments. It is a satisfying watch if one knows what they are getting into.