The Hunger Games as a running institution is the convergence of capitalistic, entertainment, and classist hells running into one another. Suzanne Collins’ novels and the following four big-screen adaptations displayed this fact from the standpoint of specific individuals, government figures, and the districts under their thumbs. So, if we’ve said all that we could say, then what is the purpose of The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, a prequel set 64 years before the events of the first book? In part, it’s to dive into the past of one Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth).
It’s not totally from the standpoint of a righteous, good-hearted man turned ultimate antagonist of the series. Francis Lawrence and writers Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt introduce many nuances into this coming-of-age villain story. It asks whether one person can escape the overtures of greed and power in a world that constantly portrays those things as the only way of escaping hardship. Righteous intentions might not even matter in a dog-eat-dog world. Palem is blanketed in complete darkness and death in the first frames of Songbirds & Snakes, and the first rebellion claims the life of General Crassus – Coriolanus’s father. Years later, an older Coriolanus is attending the Academy with some of the highest grades in his class.
Despite that, his family has little money, even as cousin Tigris (a terrifically empathetic Hunter Schafer) and grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) completely back his endeavors. Even going within its 10th iteration, The Hunger Games is not the spectacle we’re all accustomed to. Public sentiment is low, and it’s more so the use of punishment by the government rather than Sunday Night Football. Ratings are down, and the architect of the games itself, Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), has to think of a new wrinkle. Unfortunately, that flies in the face of Coriolanus’s aspirations to receive tremendous money to lift his family out of poverty (and also speaks to their contentious relationship).
There’s no valedictorian award to be won. Instead, the future leaders in the Academy will be assigned a tribute to oversee in the next Hunger Games. If they happen to win, the prize is theirs. Coriolanus’s tribute is District 12’s Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler). At first glance, she’s wholly discounted as a physical threat (a theme that continues through the film's first two acts). But she’s got a rebellious heart, a southern drawl, and a singing voice that stirs something up inside of people. Her flair during the reaping ceremony connects to Snow in a way where he ties her survival to something more profound than just the prize at the end of the tunnel.
Will Coriolanus and Lucy’s relationship blossom into a love story, or is it born out of the convenience of mutuality and shared survival? Lawrence plays the margins, and Blyth and Zieger are why this story works the way it does. Coriolanus’s life is a conundrum - the family name has given him prestige, but the living members do not see any monetary benefits from it. If anything, they live along the same margins as most districts – there is just more work to keep a certain appearance afloat. Lucy is the song of rebellions to come, and Songbirds & Snakes use Zegler’s powerful singing voice to push that to the forefront.
These games don’t hold back on showing the savage nature of what this free-for-fall to death entails. The 10th installment is full of children, some already afflicted with disease and physical ailments. Yet, this is being broadcast as a form of primetime entertainment. While the main storyline does its thing throughout the film, the supporting cast does enough on their part to keep different aspects moving along. Jason Schwartzman’s turn as host of Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman is phenomenal. He hams it up and pushes the plot's exploitation aspect because of his total disassociation from what’s happening on screen. He’s dejected because he has to cancel dinner plans because too many people are alive at one point.
Viola Davis's turn as game maker Dr. Volumnia Gaul is delightfully maniacal as she introduces new obstacles – like a huge container of snakes to the battlefield to quench her taste for destruction. It’s mainly due to the means of control - if these games send a message to possible rebels, people might fall in line. Sejanus (Josh Andrés Rivera) is Snow’s close friend, classmate, and outright dissenter of the games themselves and what they embody. Due to his family makeup, he has each foot in two different aspects of life. That gives him an outlook Coriolanus can’t see.
All the backstabbing and alliances end two-thirds of the way through the film. In a way, Songbirds & Snakes is an entirely different film during its third act. That could be a bit jarring; however, it seeks to improve some characterizations in the first parts. Coriolanus doesn’t show his cards, hints at the evil older man he will become in later iterations in the same manner Lucy might not be as pure of heart as you may think. An issue that arises is knowing what comes after and trying to piece it together with events later in the film. There’s not a particular moment that breaks Coriolanus; instead, it’s circumstances born out of the world he lives in. Whether that is enough to give runaway for the ruthless figurehead to come is of debate.
Other than seeing the military occupations within these districts and the ruthless nature that ensures, Blyth and Zegler are given the space to show what a life without the games means for their characters. It’s not that Songbirds & Snakes is going to make you feel any more resentful of the fact that fictitious barbaric competition exists inside this world, but perhaps it will make you understand why it was able to grow into the thing we know in later stories.