“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” is a movie that announces its Grandness in sheer number of words. The latest in the “Hunger Games Extended Universe” is actually a prequel to the prior set of movies. Set more than sixty years before the “The Hunger Games”, it is a chance to see the beginnings of one character in particular. No, not Katniss Everdeen…
After the people and government leaders from the Capitol District had been attacked by the residents of the rebellious twelve Districts, the Capitol imposed “The Hunger Games”. Each District, ruled by strict martial law, was forced to deliver two ‘tributes’ to compete in the Games. It was a no-holds-barred fight to the death. It was a way to punish the unruly population, and a way to amuse the Capitol citizens.
Now for the Tenth Annual Games, the folks behind it are going to switch it up. The leader of the Academy in the Capitol is Dean Highbottom (played by Peter Dinklage). The Dean was the brain behind the first Hunger Games. His ideas blossomed into a yearly Reaping and Games at a large covered stadium. There was another person in charge of the cruel killing devices used in the Games. That was Dr. Volumnia Gaul (played by Viola Davis).
This year, the idea is to use the students at the Academy to become ‘mentors’ for the District tributes. The person who has the most popular tribute will be the one who will receive a prize. The tribute has to rise to a star level, and be popular in the Capitol. It wouldn’t hurt if they would also survive. The student who gets one of the tributes from District 12 is Coriolanus ‘Coryo’ Snow (played by Tom Blyth).
Snow is a striving, politically savvy kinda guy. His father was a big General in the war against the Districts. He died years ago, and now the Snow family is in hard times. Snow lives with Grandma, and his female cousin Tigris Snow (played by Hunter Schafer). She would protect the young Coryo when they were both younger — and the War had just ended.
Snow has been assigned a tribute named Lucy Gray Baird (played by Rachel Zegler). Lucy is a cut above all the other tributes. She has a beautiful hand-sown dress and a beautiful voice. She makes her living as a musician in a travelling troop of entertainers from District 12. She has a powerful loyalty to the people she knows and trusts. And she knows she cannot trust Snow.
The Games are televised across the country of Panem. In all twelve Districts, but especially in the Capitol, the televised murder and mayhem are ‘must-see TV’. But what helps is the current host of the games. He is a weatherman, and part-time magician, turned play-by-play for each cruel death. This is Lucky Flickerman (played by Jason Schwartzman). Snow has ideas to work on Dr. Gaul and Lucky to make his tribute, Lucy, more popular.
While reviewing the huge arena which will host the Games, everyone inside is shocked. There are a series of explosions that rock the structure. They have been set by other rebel forces from the unruly Districts. In the blast, a few of the tributes – and mentors – are killed. But the Games must go on, and the slaughter must continue. The price must be paid by the Districts.
Lucy is set up with Snow to fight to the death. Snow’s classmate and friend, Sejanus Plinth (played by Josh Andrés Rivera), also is going to mentor a tribute. Everybody in his class has the person in the arena that they will cheer on and assist. But they are not allowed to cheat. Because, in a ‘Battle Royal’ where lives are taken, — well, cheating just would not be fair.
Lives are taken and deaths are rampant. Dr. Gaul has a few tricks and surprises for the final contestants. As Indiana Jones would say: “Snakes, why is it always snakes?”. Snow makes a few movies to assist Lucy, and they are mostly sneaky and underhanded. When Lucy becomes the final one standing, Snow is brought before Dean Highbottom. He is told that his cheating ways have been found. Rather than going to University, Coriolanus Snow will be sent to one of Districts. He will be a ‘Peacekeeper’ from the Capitol District.
Snow knows that nobody is hated more than a Peacekeeper, so he chooses to go to District 12. There, he might have a chance to see Lucy Gray Baird once more. He finds out that his school friend Sejanus has joined the same squad and will join him. Things move more slowly in the District. There are rumors of rebel activity and discontent.
Coryo and Lucy meet up once again. Now that Lucy is not facing a possible sentence of death in the arena, they strike up a potential romance. Snow’s friend Sejanus is a Peacekeeper who is sour on the ways of the Capitol. He is more about helping the rebels than keeping the peace.
So, will the District 12 rebels rise up and fight against the Peacekeepers and the Capitol? Will Coryo and Lucy get closer, or are both just using each other for a personal gain? Will Lucky Flickerman finally get a weather prediction correct, or the final winner of “The Hunger Games”? Only time, and potential sequels, will give the answers…
“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” is an elongated introduction to the character of Coriolanus Snow. In the original trilogy, Snow is the evil President of Panem (and is played by Donald Sutherland). This extended look at his origins shows that the evil grew slowly, based on these events.
Tom Blyth does a wonderful job playing a slowly corrupting student who will turn into a murderous dictator. Rachel Zegler does fine and she has a pleasant voice. The people having the most fun are Peter Dinklage, Viola Davis and Jason Schwartzman. They get to chew on the strange evilness of being part of the Capitol.
The story gets really bogged down towards the end. The extended length is really felt as the movie creeps on at the end. It might have been possible to get Rachel Zegler fewer songs to perform, or to cut them down slightly. After the first five or so, they do not add to her character…
“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” is a long title for a long movie. The story is interesting for first two hours, but the excitement begins to lag right at towards the end.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Screenplay by: Michael Lesslie, Michael Arndt
Based on: “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” by Suzanne Collins
Starring: Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Josh Andrés Rivera, Hunter Schafer, Jason Schwartzman, Peter Dinklage, Viola Davis
Cinematography: Jo Willems
Edited by: Mark Yoshikawa
Music by: James Newton Howard
Distributed by: Lionsgate
Release date: November 17, 2023
Length: 157 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13 for strong violent content and disturbing material
Genre: Dystopian Fiction