For several years in the 2010s, young adult dystopic stories swept the big screen. The original Hunger Games franchise, based on the novels by Suzanne Collins, blazed the trail for a series of similarly bleak teen films, from The Maze Runner to Divergent. Ultimately, though, the popularly of those movies fizzled out in favor of superhero blockbusters and Star Wars spin-offs. That didn’t stop Collins from revisiting the world of Panem in a 2020 prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, set 64 years before the events of The Hunger Games. It was only a matter of time until the novel, which is 517 pages long, made its own way into theaters.
THE HUNGER GAMES: THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS & SNAKES ★★★ (3/4 stars)
But now, as the awkwardly-titled The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes arrives, it’s questionable whether there remains an appetite for these kinds of stories. The film is a relatively faithful adaptation of the novel thanks to screenwriters Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt, recounting the events of the 10th annual Hunger Games as Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) is assigned to mentor District 12 tribute Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler). Split into three parts (and clocking in at two hours and 40 minutes), it follows a similar structure to the prior movies, although this time director Francis Lawrence smartly keeps the story contained to one film.
When we meet him, 18-year-old Coriolanus’s family has fallen out of favor in the Capitol, which is still reeling from the uprising of the districts. The government keeps the citizens in check with the annual Hunger Games, run by Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis), where two children from each of the 12 districts are forced to fight to the death in the Capitol arena. The technology and spectacle of the later games, like those Katniss Everdeen eventually competes in, has yet to be invented. Viewership is lagging, so Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage) assigns a class of academy graduates to mentor the new tributes and give the people something to watch.
Coriolanus is, of course, assigned to Lucy Gray, a rebellious teen girl who is part of the Covey, a traveling musician group forced to remain in District 12. Lucy Gray’s power is her voice, which she employs to great effect during the televised reaping ceremony. Coriolanus is sure he can help her to victory—even if it means lying and cheating along the way. The Hunger Games are the focus of the film, but not the entire point. The events continue after the Games have ended, allowing us to eventually understand how Coriolanus went from ambitious youth to villainous president of Panem (he’s played by Donald Sutherland in the prior films). Blyth is a canny actor and he’s easy to watch. His take on the character is complex—perhaps even more than the script contains—and it’s compelling to follow Coriolanus’s internal struggle on Blyth’s face as the events unfold.
Zegler, on the other hand, doesn’t quite contain the ebullient spirit of Lucy Gray that lived on the page in Collins’ novel. Her Southern accent is an odd choice, too, but it’s clear that she was primarily cast for her singing voice—a highlight of the movie. The music, produced by Dave Cobb, aptly punctuates the action and as Lucy Gray, Zegler performs several original songs, including a new take on Hunger Games fan favorite “The Hanging Tree,” previously sung by Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. Zegler is a great performer, especially when she joins the Covey onstage in District 12 to showcase bluesy folk songs.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is long, which means that it sometimes lags, but its cast and the well-crafted visuals keep it as entertaining as possible. Jason Schwartzman is hilarious as Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman, the host of the Hunger Games who is so out of touch with reality that he makes a restaurant reservation while tributes die on the monitor screens. Davis chews the scenery as Dr. Gaul, a woman who will use any means necessary to bring cruel spectacle into the arena. The production and costume design evoke the earlier movies without replicating them, giving fans a glimpse of a new era of Panem. Somehow, the world, especially the arena, looks exactly how I pictured it when I read the book.
Lawrence is very good at bringing these novels to the screen in a way that feels connected to the written material but also can exist on its own. The question isn’t whether the film was made skillfully; it’s whether audiences still want to watch movies about children killing each other. Lionsgate couldn’t have predicted world events when scheduling the release date, but the image of a bombed out arena filled with dusty, murdered kids doesn’t exist in isolation right now. It’s a reminder that real young people are dying en masse as you sit in the theater.
Lucy Gray tells Coriolanus that she believes people are inherently good. It’s the world that makes us bad, she says. It’s a poignant thought that may sadly be too simplistic for the time in which we’re currently living. Things are more complicated for Coriolanus, and they are for us as well.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.