Tom Blyth as Coriolanus Snow and Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray in a scene from Lionsgate's 'The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.'

In ‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’, the Tributes May Change, but the Game Remains the Same

3/5 rainbow snakes.

As the entertainment industry becomes more franchise-driven than ever, studios are mining successful IP (intellectual property) for more stories set in already beloved fictional worlds. Everything from Star Wars to John Wick to Harry Potter have received the prequel treatment, with some more successful than others. So when Suzanne Collins’ prequel novel, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, hit shelves in 2020, a film adaptation was all but inevitable. But of all the backstories to delve into, Collins chose Panem’s president and main antagonist, Coriolanus Snow. Played by Donald Sutherland in the original film series, Songbirds and Snakes follows an 18-year-old Snow (Tom Blyth) as he begins his rise to power as a mentor in the 10th Hunger Games.

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So while the world (or maybe just me) still pines for a Johanna Mason origin story, here we are with young fascist-in-training Snow. Director Francis Lawrence (who helmed Catching Fire and the Mockingjay films) wastes no time returning to Panem’s Capitol, where the citizens remain gaudy and deeply judgmental. Here we find young Snow, or “Corio” as he’s known to his friends, hiding behind a prestigious family name that belies his impoverishment. Snow, who lives in a dilapidated apartment with his Grandma’am (Fionnula Flanagan) and his cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer), is depending on the Plinth Prize, a scholarship that will propel his family out of poverty, pay his university tuition, and launch him into a successful future.

And with the best grades in his class and a sterling reputation, he seems a shoo-in. Until Dean Highbottom (an always-welcome Peter Dinklage) announces that the rules have changed. The top students will be assigned tributes in the 10th Hunger Games, who they must prepare and promote to the audience. In this game, the goal isn’t to win the games themselves but to create the most memorable player. Apparently, the Hunger Games have dipped in popularity, as most citizens of Panem aren’t interested in watching children murder each other for entertainment. Time to goose the ratings with some human interest stories!

Supporting players include fellow mentor Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera), a wealthy District kid whose family bought their way into the Capitol. The pure-hearted Sejanus, who despises the games, has plenty of good intentions but none of Snow’s savviness. On the other end of the moral scale is Head Gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul, a capital-V villain played with scenery-chewing gusto by Viola Davis. Gaul swans around behind the scenes gleefully creating dangerous mutants like the iridescent poisonous rainbow snakes. Clearly, Davis is having fun, launching the performance into high camp. Landing somewhere in the middle is weatherman/amateur magician Lucky Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman), who hosts the Games and provides the film with its comic relief. It’s an inspired performance by Schwartzman, who easily channels Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman from the Hunger Games series (and yes, the characters are related).

The Hunger Games has always excelled when it focuses on the theatricality behind the games, where marketing and self-promotion are as essential to survival as a loaf of bread or a quiver full of arrows. Many of the series’ best moments come when the taciturn, camera-unfriendly Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is forced into the spotlight. Snow lucks out with the charismatic and talented Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a feisty traveling singer who makes a splash during the Reaping by shoving a snake down her enemy’s dress and winning the crowd with a live performance. As the breakout star of the tributes, Snow realizes he has the potential to win if only he can get Lucy Gray to trust him.

But Lucy Gray proves to be just as slippery as Snow, playing to the crowd while also trying to survive the games. As a relationship develops between mentor and tribute, both are unsure who is playing who. Zegler delivers a captivating performance, especially when she’s performing onstage. The Appalachian-inspired folk music she sings is also a welcome respite from the film’s often dour tone. But her Southern accent is wobbly, and her character suffers from a lack of development … or at least, clarity. Songbirds and Snakes is Snow’s story, but I couldn’t help but wonder what the film would have been like from her point of view.

At a whopping 2 hours and 37 minutes, the film is split into three chapters, “The Mentor,” “The Prize,” and “The Peacekeeper”. Some of these chapters work better than others. The Prize, which sees the Hunger Games unfold, is somewhat of a drag. The arena is a run-down amphitheater, with none of the scenery or surprise threats we’ve come to expect from the games. It’s a bare-bones affair that highlights the brutality but remains a bit of a slog. Things pick up in the final chapter, which focuses on Corio and Lucy Gray’s relationship in District 12.

The film boasts lush production values and strong performances as it explores the diverging paths Snow could take. Will he flee the cruelty of the Capitol and follow his heart, or will he turn to darkness and forsake everyone at the altar of his own ambition? We already know the answer, which diffuses the tension of the film’s final act. And here is where the problem with prequels lies. When you already know the fate of your main character, how do you keep the audience engaged? Diehard fans of The Hunger Games will find a lot to enjoy, and the film is definitely more entertaining than the Mockingjay films. Still, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes remains an engaging (if overlong) watch, that doesn’t quite justify its existence.

(featured image: Lionsgate)

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Chelsea Steiner
Chelsea was born and raised in New Orleans, which explains her affinity for cheesy grits and Britney Spears. An pop culture journalist since 2012, her work has appeared on Autostraddle, AfterEllen, and more. Her beats include queer popular culture, film, television, republican clownery, and the unwavering belief that 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' is the greatest movie ever made. She currently resides in sunny Los Angeles, with her husband, 2 sons, and one poorly behaved rescue dog. She is a former roller derby girl and a black belt in Judo, so she is not to be trifled with. She loves the word “Jewess” and wishes more people used it to describe her.