Eight years since the last of four Hunger Games movies hit the big screen, the franchise refreshes with this prequel, which had me invested. The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes tells the story of the evolution of the eventual president of Panem, the role filled by Donald Sutherland in the original Hunger Games.
Here it is Tom Blyth who plays 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow, who has seen the family name’s fall from grace in a post-war Capitol. Snow lives with his gentle cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer) and grandmother, known as Grandma’am (Fionnula Flanagan), but times for all are tough. With his livelihood threatened, Snow reluctantly accepts the assignment to mentor Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) in the 10th Hunger Games. Baird is a feisty Tribute from the impoverished District 12, with a beautiful singing voice and the ability to capture the attention of viewers. This is a critical element to this instalment, as interest in the Hunger Games from an audience perspective has waned.
Snow sees a way to seize the day and improve both his and Baird’s situation … by taking risks and breaking rules. Unexpected romance follows, but the situation they are in fraught. Snow tries to take the high road, but troubling episodes see him turn. Wanting to see him fall is the Academy’s morally conflicted dean, Highbottom (Peter Dinklage). He bears the burden of guilt for setting the Games into motion, along with Snow’s deceased father, Crassus, a once powerful figure in the Capitol.
The Games began as a joke, to devise a punishment so extreme that the Districts could never forget how badly they wronged Panem. Snow’s father took Highbottom’s idea for the Hunger Games and ran with it. Songbirds & Snakes looks at the early days of the Hunger Games, exploring the genesis of its showmanship and spectacle. It also delves into the origins of Panem’s authoritarian rule.
Viola Davis steps into the role of the evil Dr. Volumnia Gaul, Academy instructor and Head Gamesmaker. She spearheads initiatives to increase the Capitol public’s investment in the Games. Under her watch, early versions of betting, sponsorships and mentors are introduced to make the Games more entertaining. Her job is to ensure they continue to serve their purpose. Gaul is the mastermind behind the Capitol’s experimental weapons division. Her lab hosts a horrifying menagerie of genetically altered animals called muttations. She has a particularly twisted use for her venomous snakes.
Also of note in the cast is Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera), who plays Coriolanus Snow’s fellow Academy student and another Tribute mentor. He and Snow have an uneasy relationship. Making his mark as The Hunger Games first broadcast host is weatherman and amateur magician Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman). In previous instalments the role was memorably played Stanley Tucci, as his descendant Caesar Flickerman.
Based on the novel by Suzanne Collins, Songbirds & Snakes is written by Michael Lesslie (Macbeth) and Michael Arndt (The Hunger Games – Catching Fire). Francis Lawrence (who helmed the three previous movies in the franchise) directs.
Broken into three chapters (with tonal shift between chapters), there’s a lot to unpack here and familiarity with the franchise is helpful. I appreciated the shifts in power and control, and the manipulation involved in the screenplay. There is tension and unease throughout.
Tom Blyth does much of the heavy lifting and is solid, while Rachel Zegler (West Side Story) also asserts her authority, presenting as a young woman not to be pushed around. An at times barely recognisable, Viola Davis is a scene stealer, revelling in her character’s power. Another standout is Peter Dinklage, who paints his character with a dark edge – a drunk and mere shell of a man, on the precipice of destruction. Jason Schwartzman does a good job as the slimy forerunner to Stanley Tucci – the man tasked with bringing the “colour” of the Games to the masses.
Visually arresting, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is long but rewarding.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- West Side Story – movie review
- The Velvet Queen – movie review
- Let it Snow (Netflix) – streaming review
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.