We return to Panem for the 10th annual Hunger Games in Francis Lawrence’s prequel. Read our The Hunger Games: The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes review.
It’s been eight years since we said goodbye to The Hunger Games franchise with Mockingjay Part II. Based on Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy of books, the four films have grossed nearly $3 billion at the global box office.
That success is set to continue with the release of The Hunger Games: The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes, a prequel focusing on the origins of the villainous President Coriolanus Snow. Collins’ novel, and the film, take place 64 years before Katniss Everdeen would go on to volunteer as a tribute at the 74th annual Hunger Games.
At the beginning of The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes, the nation of Panem is preparing for the 10th Hunger Games. Snow is a sprightly, starving Academy student who is desperately trying to maintain a veneer of wealth and comfort in a world where appearances are everything. He, along with the rest of his graduating class, are assigned as mentors in the Hunger Games and Snow is assigned to mentor Lucy Gray Baird, the girl tribute from District 12. Snow quickly develops feelings for the mysterious Lucy Gray, but his efforts to help her in the Games might cost him his future.
While the love triangle in the original Hunger Games films, between Katniss and her fellow tribute Peeta and childhood friend Gale, always felt a little out of place in what otherwise was a franchise focusing on a war bubbling underneath the surface, the budding romance between Snow and Lucy Gray feels powerful here. But The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes is, more than anything, a character study and a villain origin story. How did this seemingly charming, even sympathetic boy grow into a cruel and unjust man?
For those who have read the book, The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes mostly delivers. The book, running over 500 pages, was always going to be tough to fit into a single film, even if that film runs over two and a half hours. Director Francis Lawrence and writers Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt streamline certain events and characters disappear as suddenly as they appear, but for the most part, The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes flows brilliantly. The production design turns most rooms into arenas of their own, in which Snow must compete just as much as Lucy Gray has to in the real arena.
The Games themselves, happening roughly at the halfway mark of an admittedly long film, are much more rudimentary than the impressive, excessive arena in Lawrence’s first foray into the franchise, Catching Fire, but they are no less brutal. As in the previous films, Lawrence successfully creates an impression of violence, while never showing too much of the bloodshed. The film doesn’t dwell on the games for too long, which might prove disappointing for many, but the real, much juicier themes lie outside of the Capitol arena.
The casting is simply phenomenal. Tom Blyth balances the good and evil in Snow well and there’s an Anakin Skywalker-like innocence to him that is constantly on the verge of tipping into full-blown villainy. While we know Snow becomes both the president and arguably, the villain of Panem, Lawrence and Blyth fascinatingly weave Snow’s future into his present to keep us satisfied.
Rachel Zegler, still so early on in her career, proves to be a real star. While she was utterly wasted in Shazam!: Fury Of The Gods and West Side Story mostly played on her innocence, The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes gives her a role to really sink her teeth into. Viola Davis is majestic as the deranged Head Gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul and Peter Dinklage commands the screen as Dean Casca Highbottom, who proves to be a far more tragic character than you’d imagine. Only Jason Schwartzmann feels a little out of his depth as Lucky Flickerman with a performance that can’t match Stanley Tucci’s equivalent from the original films.
Surprisingly, The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes only improves on the films that came before it. It’s such a satisfying prequel and one of the best villain origin stories we’ve seen lately. Its timely themes and considered performances make this a victorious return to both Panem and the world of The Hunger Games. As it stands, there are no bad films in The Hunger Games franchise, which is an achievement in itself.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes is in cinemas 17 November.