Stop me if this one sounds familiar—The Hunger Games have outlived their usefulness. We’re over it. The first few were lots of dark fun, but they stretched our appreciation past the breaking point by the time the last one limped along to its overdue conclusion. And to be honest, we haven’t given them much thought since. But wait! There’s a new one? We have to do all this again? Well, they better find some new, fresh way to make this interesting for us…
And that, my friends, is the literal plot of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, director Francis Lawrence’s prequel film which hit theaters this past weekend. Katniss who? Peeta what? All of the Panem characters that we came to know and love and eventually be kind of bored by are here mere glimmers in their grandparents’ eyes as we flash a full sixty-four years into the past for the 10th annual Hunger Games contest.
And those Games? The people of Panem are bored by them. They’ve been tuning out in droves, and the ratings are in the dumpster. Something must be done to add some flair, to jazz ‘em up—to, in the immortal words of Tyra Banks, give ‘em some zhuzh. It turns out that just watching children stab each other and starve to death isn’t the best long-term entertainment plan (shhh nobody tell David Zaslav).
Showmanship is what’s needed. And as the Fates (i.e. author Suzanne Collins) would have it, there are a pair of show-people about to converge in the killing arena just when (Heavensbee forbid) Fascism is losing some of its effervescence. First up, we have—sixty-four years younger than when Donald Sutherland played him in the original films—one Coriolanus Snow. Here it’s the actor Tom Blyth (previously known for playing “Feral Child” in the 2010 Robin Hood movie) slipping into Snow’s finery. And his hair might be yellower and his abs might be, you know, actual abs, ones that the movie doesn’t hesitate to linger on several times. But he’s still got that same sense of sly-eyed theatricality, not to mention that weird affinity for roses.
This Snow, far from the diabolical President we got to watch clash with Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss, is here just a poor boy from a poor family—his parents are dead and he lives in a ramshackle slum, well past its expiration date, with his Grandma’am (Fionnula Flanagan, once again wielding the same terrifyingly cold eyes she weaponized so well in The Others) and his cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer of Euphoria fame). But they put on a good show of not being low-class - Coryo (as everybody calls him) is faking it at Uni until he makes it, which means he really, really needs to win the Plinth Prize, a cash award given out to the best student.
Unfortunately for Snow and for all of his fellow classmates, the people in charge—meaning Peter Dinklage as Dean Casca Highbottom, the creator of the Games, and even more so Viola Davis (very nearly devouring the costumes, sets, and her fellow performers) as Dr. Volumnia Gaul, the let’s-say-eccentric Head Game-maker—have decided to zhuzh it up. And their first stab at doing that is appointing these heads-of-the-class to take on the newly-formed role of “mentor” to the kids who’ve been chosen to compete in the Games. In the original films, this was Woody Harrelson’s role—basically it’s their job to media-train these adolescent captives, and whichever one of them does the best job of making a star out of their lil’ killer will win that coveted cash award.
Enter the second half of our razzle-em-dazzle-em team-up with Snow’s reluctant apprentice—Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler from West Side Story and the forthcoming live-action Snow White), a seemingly wackadoo traveling songstress from the 12th District (also known as Katniss’ future home) who makes a spectacle of herself on live television when her name is called in “The Reaping,” aka the ceremony where our “Tributes” from each District are chosen. Snow immediately senses Lucy’s capacity for Good TV, and the two find themselves working together toward a common goal for different ends… ends which slowly start to creep closer as the two-some become more intimate thanks to the horror, shock, and awe that the Games put them through together.
Essentially the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy smashed into a single film—albeit a single film that runs very nearly three hours long—The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes plays out as an extended tragedy for those of us watching it who already know the awful man Snow will be by the time Katniss’s story comes around. This is an origin story for a villain, after all. But the film’s very good at making us forget that and legitimately root for Snow anyway, all despite that knowledge. A lot of that is a credit to Blyth himself, who’s extremely good at externalizing the conflict roiling beneath Coryo’s surface, even while keeping much of him (how deep his faults run) buried, at least until that all comes to a head in the film’s last act.
Speaking of—even at this extensive length, it’s the third act of the film (which takes place after the Games are over) where The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes gets genuinely interesting, which is to say surprising, and begins laying its cards on the table. A showcase for the insidious ways Fascism ruins the hearts and minds of the people underneath its boot and makes them fight one another instead of the real, big enemy, showing how the Games themselves are only a side-show—they’re an illustrative symptom of a much larger sickness.
As an example, twice in the film we see instances of classmates stealing one another’s work and calling it their own, with that intellectual betrayal leading to horror—this echo, drawing an emphatic underline beneath the point it’s making, shows that the well-to-do in the Capitol of Panem, those closest to power, are utterly poisoned by it. This movie is, in its way, the Young Adult version of Jonathan Glazer’s forthcoming Nazi-camp allegory The Zone of Interest, which was an unexpected but welcome parallel to discover to say the least!
This is all to say that this Hunger Games movie is bleak, bleak as all get out. But it’s profound too—as profound as a movie with characters named “Hilarius Heavensbee” and “Clemensia Dovecote” and “Vipsania Sickle” can be, anyway. It reveals itself to be deeply invested in dissecting the ways the powers that be can turn people against one another, be it through something as simple as an intellectual exercise or as dire as a fight to the death. And how we’ll gladly put our own boots on our neighbor’s necks without even thinking about it, depending on the carrot we’re shown.
It is, I don’t hesitate to say in the slightest even as I’m a little shocked to be saying it, the richest and most meaningful film of the entire franchise. A heartbreaker with beautiful highs (sing Rachel Zegler, sing!) and devastating lows, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes fulfills all of the promise of its dark premise. And it, dare I say, leaves us in the exact same state as the people of Panem at its end—wanting even more Hunger Games!