The original Hunger Games films made a household name of Jennifer Lawrence. In those films, her character Katniss Everdeen squared off against the octogenarian tyrannical ruler of a dystopian society called Panem, President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland).
In this fifth film of the franchise, a prequel taking place approximately 65 years before the originals, Lawrence’s Katniss is gone, leaving in her place Rachel Zegler (West Side Story) as the scrappy girl from District 12, Lucy Gray Baird. Really, though, the film serves as an origin of evil story of sorts – think Star Wars prequels – focusing on Tom Blyth as a young “Coryo” Snow. And while the film retains a lot of tremendous entertainment value of the originals, a wobbly story ultimately makes it a less than perfect prequel.
Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes opens with a very young Coryo Snow scrapping for food with his cousin Tigris Snow (played in the core of the film by Hunter Schafer). The Snows are falling on hard times as Coryo’s father is killed in the horrific war that resulted in the ultimate subjugation of twelve “districts” to a Roman bacchanal type “Capital.” This war also established the original Hunger Games—a roman arena style competition where two “tributes” chosen cruelly at random from each district must compete to the death until only one survivor remains.
The original conceit behind the franchise remains as brilliant as it was when it was first introduced. However, basic or even obvious it may be, a film focused on brutal human bloodlust and desire for horrifying entertainment remains as timely today as when the franchise first made a splash at the dawn of the age of social media. As social commentary about oppressors, resistance, tyranny, The Hunger Games is similarly pedestrian as it is enthralling. It makes you unable to stop watching while mocking those unable to stop watching.
A significant reason why the franchise works as well is its ridiculous over the top characters. While fans of the original will surely miss costumed, made-up clownish figures played by Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci, fear not. In their stead, Jason Schwartzmann plays Lucretius Flickerman, the smarmy television host of the Hunger Games, and Viola Davis plays the deliciously evil Dr. Volumnia Gaul, a Dr. Jekyll type fascist that undertakes experiments on animals to make them carry out her devious totalitarian needs, from spying, to killing. For fans, the tour behind the scenes of how the games may have come about, and where franchise signatures like the Hunger Games arena, or “jabberjays” came about, is sufficient reason to watch this admittedly tremendously entertaining movie.
There are other reasons as well. Zegler’s character—the songbird of the title—sings a bunch, and she’s wonderful. A particularly evocative sequence during the bloodletting is particularly effective and chill-inducing. Tom Blyth, mostly a newcomer, acquits himself well at the heart of the proceedings—the snake, of course. Peter Dinklage also shows up, as Casca Highbottom, Dean of the Academy where Snow and pals study, donning a mysterious connection to Snow’s father. The absolute highest kudos, however, go to Davis, who is remarkably effective as the sneering Dr. Gaul. If Academy Award nominations for fantasy films are a thing now—as well they should be—put her on the top of your list.
Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a wonderfully produced film, with significant box office and award potential, despite its bulky 2h30 runtime. Another heart-stopping score by James Newton Howard combines with the spectacular makeup and hairstyling as well as costume design. The characters in the Capital in particular are, well, ridiculous, but their looks are to thank. These are some of the most wonderfully creative folks working in those media, and they, too, should be rewarded. The action is good too, with out of genre scheming bookending the signature games in the middle third of the action. Longtime franchise director Frances Lawrence does a superb job of letting all of these excellent elements work in sync and together.
What keeps The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes from being a true triumph is some questionable adaptation choices by screenwriters Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt. At bottom, the movie is too Hollywood. Coriolanus is supposed to be greedy and duplicitous from the beginning. Lucy Gray is there to provide the emotional core and the sympathetic character—franchise author Suzanne Collins knows she’s writing for teenagers and so, yes, some hero is required. But the Lionsgate adaptation makes the remarkable choice of making both Coryo and Lucy Gray sympathetic, at least from the beginning. This is fine as far as it goes, if the characters ends up having an Anakin Skywalker sequence of events that lead to his soul’s demise, and the loving relationship between him as the mentor of Lucy Gray in the arena seems to provide the fodder for precisely that.
But it never comes. Instead, Coriolanus simply…becomes bad. The reasons or transitions make little sense and are never explained. It simply happens, with little more than his original desire to recoup his family’s past glory somewhere in the background to justify it.
By the times the credits roll, the whiplash will be real. A strong story, incredible acting, and strong production values are all there, and make the movie worth seeing without question. Yet they cannot turn a confounding story into anything but, making the whole a tad lesser than the sum of its parts. If anyone had asked the writers for help, I would have gladly volunteered as tribute.
Awards Potential: Costumes, Production Design
Box Office Potential: Very High
Renewability: Sequel very clearly in play
Overall Score: B-
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes will be released by Lionsgate on November 17, 2023.
Principal Cast: Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Josh Andrés Rivera, Viola Davis, Peter Dinklage, Jason Schwartzman, Nick Benson
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenwriter: Michael Lesslie, Michael Arndt
Producers: Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson, Francis Lawrence
DP: Jo Willems
Production Design: Uli Hanisch
Editor: Mark Yoshikawa
Score by: James Newton Howard