The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes Review

We Know What We’re In For

We’ve come to expect certain things when we watch a Hunger Games movie. Adapted from Suzanne Collins’ trilogy for young adults, they’re full of commentary-via-metaphor on class, politics, war, propaganda, and the inherent violence of the entertainment industry. The conflicts in The Hunger Games are won not with true combat, but with deceit and manipulation. Director Francis Lawrence returns to the franchise for its newest installment, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (based on Collins’ 2020 book), a prequel that has all the potent ingredients of the previous films and then some, making for an enjoyable yet thin adaptation that needs much more time to make its complex story truly compelling.

We’re treated to a short prologue set in “The Dark Days” immediately after the Districts’ war with the Capitol. The megacity has been reduced to rubble and young Tigris and her little cousin Coriolanus Snow witness a man cutting off a corpse’s leg for meat. We fast-forward to the present, the eve of the 10th annual Hunger Games, a collective punishment to indicate in no uncertain terms the Capitol’s absolute mastery over the Districts. Coriolanus is close to graduating from his secondary school and attending a prestigious university, but not before his class is ordered to partner with the unfortunate child tributes of the Hunger Games in the event’s first mentorship program. For Coriolanus, the situation is desperate: The mentor of this year’s victor will receive a monetary prize that will allow Coriolanus to buy his grandmother and his cousin out of poverty.

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes Gallery

Deeper into the Contest

This new mandate is one of many changes to this year’s Games. Viewership is down – it’s implied that Capitol citizens no longer find much entertainment in watching kids violently kill each other. The mentors are told they must find ways to turn the Games into a real spectacle, something that will keep the people watching. (There’s that commentary on the entertainment industry again.) Coriolanus’ mentee Lucy Gray Baird (a vibrant Rachel Zegler), a traveling singer from District 12, seems hopeless at first, until her talent for showmanship proves she’s at least ready to make a lasting impression on the viewers at home. That, paired with Coriolanus’ sneaky self-serving streak and ability to ingratiate himself with real power players like magician-weatherman-host Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman mad-scientist Games designer Dr. Volumnia Gaul, stack the odds in their favor.

Unraveling the Plot

There are wrinkles, of course. Coriolanus’ school friend Sejanus Plinth is District-born but blessed with a wealthy and well-connected father who was able to purchase his son a Capitol education. As such, he sympathizes with the citizens trapped in the Districts and with the rebel insurgents who are still at large on Capitol territory, and Coriolanus constantly has to keep him in check. And, naturally, Coriolanus and Lucy Gray begin to fall for each other, making it even more of an imperative for him to do anything to keep her alive.

It’s a good story, and a good setting for a prequel. But the density of its plot – it takes place over the course of one entire Hunger Games, plus its aftermath – made me wish it was either longer (it’s already pushing three hours) or split in half, as with the trilogy’s final book Mockingjay. Unlike Mockingjay, there is enough material here for two movies – The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes doesn’t have enough time to depict the interplay of emotions and manipulations that make up Coriolanus and Lucy Gray’s relationship.

That fluctuating duality ought to be the driving force behind the action here. The audience should be asking themselves which, of any, character is truly genuine in their actions, or if everything is simply a means to an end. In Lucy Gray’s opening scene, she defiantly sings a local folk song on live TV and slips a snake down the back of an enemy’s dress, perhaps already aware that in order to win the Games, you have to put on a show. Coriolanus is constantly shown stepping aside from or actively participating in the downfalls of those he considers friends. And yet the movie never introduces the question of who is using who until the very end, when the outcome is inevitable. It treats Coriolanus’ slow yet steady descent as a heel-turn twist rather than the predetermined result of his circumstances and his personality, a shift that feels like a grand reveal instead of the tragedy that it is.

And the film is a tragedy, at its heart. Possibly for the first time, this Hunger Games movie really drives the point home that these are children killing children – the stripped-down empty sports hall sits in stark contrast to the flash and pomp of the terraformed environments of future arenas, with no beautiful scenery or eye-catching wildlife to distract from the brutal violence. The spectacle feels real, but the rest doesn’t add quite enough to put on a good show.