In the annals of dystopian YA, perhaps none defined the subgenre so well as The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. The films were largely successful by adaptation standards, being an effective rendering of the material that largely stuck to the messages Collins meant to get across regarding war, desensitization, and violence. 2020 saw the release of a prequel to the trilogy—The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes—featuring the 10th annual Hunger Games, where it turns out that one tribute was mentored by the future Panem President Snow.
Which forces us to collectively ask… is the backstory of Coriolanus Snow something that the world really needed to reckon with? And it’s a question we can now ask twice, with the release of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes in theaters.
[Minor spoilers for The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes]
The film follows the path set before a young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blythe), son of a once-rich family who is doing his best to keep up that appearance, a full sixty-four years ahead of the trilogy’s events. His hopes of winning a scholarship that his family desperately needs are dashed when the parameters for obtaining it are altered by Dean Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage) and Head Gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis). Now students who desire the coveted Plinth Prize must participate as the first “mentors” in the Hunger Games and offer suggestions to increase viewership, as very few people in the Capitol seem keen to watch anymore.
Highbottom is the former friend (as in, they had a terrible falling out) of Snow’s father, and as a result sticks him with what he assumes will be the worst tribute—the girl from District 12. That girl turns out to be Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), who dazzles the public at her reaping by showing up in a colorful dress that belonged to her mother and singing a defiant song. Snow rightly sees this for the opportunity it is, and his ambition combined with Lucy Gray’s performance savvy makes it easy for Coriolanus to land her attention and stoke public interest in the games. This, combined with his suggestions to Dr. Gaul make the 10th Annual Hunger Games a spectacle that ensures their survival into the future, even as Snow begins to fall for his tribute and she for him.
The games only make up half of the film’s 157-minute runtime, a punishment seemingly inflicted on the audience for not having to sit through two films instead of one (which is what happened to the trilogy’s third installment Mockingjay, don’t forget). The rest of the film deals with Snow’s feelings for Lucy Gray, and the effect that relationship has on his person and his future. To the story’s credit, Coriolanus Snow never seems like a “good” guy, even at his most vulnerable moments; it’s clear from the beginning that young “Coryo” has compartmentalized everything uneasy in his life in order to allow himself freedom to do inhumane things. It helps, also, that the film chose not to keep such a tight perspective on Snow as the book does, allowing the audiences to sink into the perspective of Lucy Gray just as often when she’s on screen.
The actors chosen for these roles do most of the film’s work for it. Zegler commands the screen whenever she appears, dazzling with the sort of charisma the part demands. It’s an enjoyable turn away from soft and besotted Maria of West Side Story, and an impressive indication of Ziegler’s range as a performer. Blyth manages to play Snow in a manner that never trips over into melodrama, never overplays evil all the way across the line into caricature. The result (thankfully) doesn’t make Coriolanus Snow easier to relate to, but certainly does remind the audience that evil is often mundane and frighteningly human.
Having said this, Viola Davis’ Dr. Gaul never does manage to come off as anything quite so subtle. With only a few objectivist slogans for thoughts and a lab full of horrors, Gaul is the unequivocal devil on Snow’s shoulder. Davis seems to be enjoying the chance to play that sort of part, and all the more power to her. It’s only unfortunate that behind Panem’s greatest tyrant is another whose motives seems far less complex, in an exercise that is arguably about recognizing the humanity of even the most odious people.
But the film has another problem in its prequel leanings: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes an unfathomable amount of time setting up key points of relation to the originating trilogy, often in a manner so obvious that it winds up comical. There are mockingjays all over District 12, and Snow doesn’t seem to like them. Lucy Gray sings “The Hanging Tree” at several portentous moments in the film, and possibly also wrote it? Look at all the imagery and symbolism!
And then there’s a moment when Lucy Gray’s friend comes to her with a root that they want to stew for food. Snow asks what it is, and Lucy Gray gives him the official name… but tells him that she thinks it should be called “Katniss.” The camera fixes on Snow as his jaw seems to tighten, perhaps glimpsing a future that none of us can see. It’s corny, there’s truly no other word for it. If there’s meant to be a cross-generational handshake happening here—two girls from District 12 who unknowingly conspired across the ages to bring Coriolanus Snow down—it doesn’t seem clever enough to include so blatantly.
By the end, it’s hard to know what we’re meant to take away from this manner of story. We’re given the underpinnings of Snow’s personal ethos, certainly, adopted from Dr. Gaul as the two of them form a mentor-mentee relationship that will bring the Capital into its excess-laden future. These two believe that all people at their cores are monstrous, that all of life is a Hunger Games arena. That they are the ones who win. And there are people in our own world who likely think similarly, of course. But what good does knowing that do us, or indeed, The Hunger Games trilogy? How does knowing what Coriolanus Snow thinks enrich our understanding of what we’ve already witnessed and read?
It doesn’t, really. And so the exercise only serves to bring about more of what the story so meticulously derides—with this prequel, movie theaters across the U.S. are having “Panem parties,” encouraging fans to dress up like denizens of the Capitol, ready to watch the Hunger Games once more. With that in mind, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes can only wind up feeling an awful lot like a marketing scheme to keep this “franchise” going a little bit longer. Impressive performances aside, it has nothing to offer us that we don’t already know.
Emmet Asher-Perrin isn’t quite sure how this would be enjoyable family holiday viewing, in any case. You can bug them on Twitter and Bluesky, and read more of their work here and elsewhere.