The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (2023)

Everyone hungers for something.

Were we champing at the bit to learn how Donald Sutherland’s Machiavellian President Coriolanus Snow schemed his way to power in the years before the original The Hunger Games (novel or film works, but I’m talking primarily about the latter)? I know the Star Wars prequels have been somewhat reassessed through the lens of the broader narrative, but even if I agreed with that slight drift towards the positive, I wouldn’t say the same principle applies here. I dig The Hunger Games all up, goofy cake frosting camouflage and all, but there was nothing to indicate that there was some fascinating backstory waiting to be discovered. It was backstory for a reason.

But we discovered it anyway, first in Suzanne Collins’ 2020 novel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, and now with the perhaps inevitable film adaptation, which sees Francis Lawrence, who directed the previous three films in the series, back in the big chair. In the eight years that have passed since the release of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015), the audience has largely drifted away from this kind of decently budgeted YA fare, which used to be money in the bank during the Great Harry Potter Craze. Still, if any of the big titles have a shot at still drawing a crowd, it’d have to be The Hunger Games, which was quite A Thing for a minute there.

‘It’s the things we love most that destroy us.’

The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes does its best to be of this current minute, casting rapidly rising star Rachel Zegler as songstress and unwilling Tribute Lucy Gray Baird. There are parallels to be noted with OG star Jennifer Lawrence, who already had a Best Actress nomination under her belt for 2010’s Winter’s Bone when she made The Hunger Games (2012) and would win an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook (2012), released mere months after the YA adaptation hit theatres. Zegler was hotly tipped for a nomination for West Side Story (2021) and will almost certainly nab one for a future project if she plays her cards right. In terms of her position in the culture and the industry, Zegler isn’t an exact match for Lawrence a decade or so back, but it’s close enough for government work.

But she’s not our protagonist here. That’s young Coriolanus Snow, who we first meet as a young boy, being played by Dexter Sol Ansell, scavenging for food and learning of the death in action of his illustrious father, General Crassus, during the pitiless civil war that forms the background of the entire franchise. When the proper action of the story picks up, he’s 18, played by Tom Blyth, and determined to win an academic prize to help shore up the dwindling fortunes of his noble family, who can barely afford the rent on their sumptuous Capitol apartments.

Unluckily for “Coryo” (surely, they’d just call him “Corey”), the rules have been changed at the behest of Academy Dean Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage, once again bringing immense pathos to an underwritten role), intellectual architect of The Hunger Games, who may have a personal grudge against Coriolanus. To win big, the graduating class must mentor the 24 Tributes — two from each District — in the upcoming 10th Hunger Games, the lethal gladiatorial combats staged to keep the formerly-rebellious areas of Panem in line (I have to assume some familiarity with the series overall gist going forward). People are getting bored with what essentially a post-apocalyptic auto-da-fe – we need these kids to put on a show.

The show’s not over until the mockingjay sings.

As you might guess, Coriolanus is assigned Lucy Gray, who is essentially “Woody Guthrie but a 10/10 smokeshow” with a bit of Johnny Cash sprinkled on for good measure. She’s a free spirit with a little mean streak; when we meet her, she uses a snake to spook the girl who arranged for her to be “Reaped” for the Games. She’s a member of the Covey, who is apparently a nomadic mob of minstrels who just about evoke real-world peoples like the Irish Travellers and the Romani, but the film fails to examine that (as does the book, from what I’ve read).

But she wants to live, which is a fair enough motivation, and Coriolanus really wants that prize, and we proceed from there. And so, over the course of the film, we see their relationship develop, and we see how ruthless Coriolanus can be, and what lengths he’ll go to in order to achieve his goals. And when what may be love with Lucy Gray might be an obstacle to restoring his family’s glory, we are forced to wonder which is more important to him.

That’s the general thrust, in any case, but ultimately The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes makes a lot of promises it can’t fulfill. It comes down to a question of interiority; in order for Coriolanus’ choices to have any dramatic weight, we have to have some understanding of where his head’s at and what his values are. We never, ever get that — these elements are alluded to, but never concretized.

It’s a big ask — how do we show the rise of a web-spinning political animal without access to his inner thoughts? Blyth, who is the best thing in the bizarrely plodding Billy the Kid TV series, is pretty good here — he certainly looks the business. But he’s a cipher — his poker face is nigh-perfect. And so, when we reach a form in the narrative road where the possible paths are defined by his psychology, it’s a coin flip — except we know, in the broad strokes, where we’re going to end up. Perhaps Lawrence and credited screenwriters Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt were shooting for the doominess of Greek tragedy; they hit poorly dramatized conflict instead. When our central issue (literally “is her gonna kill her?”) is eventually resolved, it’s done so in such a non-committal and ambiguous manner that you have to wonder why so much screen time has been burned in the lead up.

‘Maybe one day you’ll be a Gamemaker like me.’

But there’s interesting things going on here nonetheless, bits of worldbuilding and creative choices that don’t add up to a great movie, per se, but are worth commenting on. The striking production design by Uli Hanisch, Cloud Atlas (2012), mixes together dustbowl/rust belt imagery with Albert Speer architectural axioms, a little Studs Terkel meets Leni Riefenstahl. In the first four films, we saw the stark disparity between the luxurious, decadent Capitol and the impoverished, oppressed Districts, but here we’re only ten years out from a devastating, all-engulfing war, and frankly, the whole place is a crapsack, and the Capitol denizens might pay lip service to their superiority to their lesser, but the material benefits of being a few rungs up the socioeconomic ladder aren’t as pronounced. Even the Arena where the Games take place isn’t the spectacular space we get down the track, but rather a concrete coliseum so urban and blighted that you wouldn’t bat an eyelid if The Warriors wandered through on their way to Coney Island.

The supporting cast does a lot to lift things, although once again, the dynamics that underpin the short-lived alliances the Tributes forge don’t make a whole lot of sense given the context in which they occur. Mackenzie Lansing’s Coral, who forges a number of Tributes into a ruthless pack, makes for a hissable villain, but lord knows why anyone would actually follow her. Speaking of hissable villains, I guffawed out loud when Lilly Cooper’s Arachne Crane, a particularly haughty Mentor, got her just desserts after denigrating her Tribute once too often, but that might just be me.

We have more fun with Viola Davis as the wonderfully-monikered Dr. Volumnia Gaul, a big-haired mad scientist who cooks up all the weird and deadly critters that populate the world of The Hunger Games. Davis understands that Too Big isn’t Big Enough here and chews the scenery appropriately. So too does Jason Schwartzman as Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman, TV host and close-up magician, and presumed ancestor to Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman. Where Tucci was jaded, Schwartzman is desperate, aware that even in the most fraught times, a good court jester tends to get fed. Burn Gorman shows up later as Commander Hoff, Coriolanus’s commander after he gets sent off to be a Peacekeeper when his machinations get him in trouble, and it’s always good to see Burn Gorman. Fionnula Flanagan as Coriolanus’s grandmother and Hunter Schafer as his cousin, Tigris, the manifestations of the family he’s determined to protect and raise up? They’re fine, although it’s hard to muster much sympathy for people whose main problems could be solved by moving to a smaller apartment (surely there’d be plenty spare — the Capitol real estate market makes less sense than Sydney’s).

What do you hunger for?

I was struck by one throw-away bit of casting — that of Sofia Sanchez as Wovey, a young Tribute. 14-year-old Sanchez has Down Syndrome (the character in the novel does not), and her mere presence highlights the sheer, brutal inhumanity of the Games. In point of fact, the violence here is several notches up from what we’ve seen before, and this is a franchise that has never exactly shied away from brutality, pushing the envelope in terms of what’s permissible in the YA space.

Sanchez’s Wovey draws the empathy we’re supposed to be feeling for Coriolanus and Lucy Gray, perhaps. But she’s more the embodiment of an ideal than an actual character, and he’s unknowable. So, while there are plenty of elements here to enjoy, there’s never a strong reason to tell this story — when the film draws to a close after its hefty 157 minutes, we don’t really have a good sense of what has changed here, how Coriolanus is different at the end of this thing than at the beginning, and what exactly all this was for. It’s a portrait of the process of corruption, and it’s certainly not a look into the mind of a monster ala American Psycho (2000) or 86’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (gosh, imagine that!). But without being allowed to understand these characters, we’re left with something that feels more like a Wikipedia summary than a movie: “this happened, then this happened, then this happened … and eventually Katniss Everdeen volunteered as Tribute”. Maybe skip to that last point instead and save yourself some time.

2 / 5 – Average

Reviewed by Travis Johnson

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia

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