Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Peter Dinklage, Hunter Schafer, Josh Andrés Rivera, Jason Schwartzman, Viola Davis
Runtime: 2 hr 45 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Violence)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures and Encore Films
Opening Day: 16 November 2023
Synopsis: THE HUNGER GAMES: THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS & SNAKES follows a young Coriolanus (Tom Blyth) who is the last hope for his failing lineage, the once-proud Snow family that has fallen from grace in a post-war Capitol. With his livelihood threatened, Snow is reluctantly assigned to mentor Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a tribute from the impoverished District 12. But after Lucy Gray’s charm captivates the audience of Panem, Snow sees an opportunity to shift their fates. With everything he has worked for hanging in the balance, Snow unites with Lucy Gray to turn the odds in their favor. Battling his instincts for both good and evil, Snow sets out on a race against time to survive and reveal if he will ultimately become a songbird or a snake.
For the uninitiated, ‘The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ is a prequel to the earlier ‘Hunger Games’ trilogy that had Jennifer Lawrence in the lead. Set 64 years before the trilogy, it traces the corruption of one Coriolanus Snow, whom some may recall would eventually become the autocratic tyrant of Panem. If that somehow gives you pause, especially given the track record of the ‘Fantastic Beasts’ trilogy, let us reassure you that it is a rare prequel that is as good, if not better, than its predecessors, by being not only more intimate and grounded but also placing a morally ambiguous character at its centre.
Indeed, it is important to keep in mind that it is ultimately Snow’s origin story, whom a prologue tells us was the only child of a once-wealthy and powerful family until his father General Crassus Snow was killed in action in District 12. As a 18-year-old (played by Tom Blyth), Coriolanus now lives with his cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer) and grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) in a rented, run-down apartment. Determined to restore his family’s prosperity, Coriolanus is looking forward to winning the Plinth prize based on his academic excellence in the Capitol’s most prestigious institution, the Academy.
Alas, the Academy’s Dean Casca ‘Cas’ Highbottom (Peter Dinklage) announces that the year’s winner will be decided based on their mentorship of the tributes chosen for the upcoming 10th edition of the Hunger Games. Coriolanus’ assignment happens to be a District 12 tribute, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), who captures the Capitol’s attention when she sings defiantly during the district’s annual reaping ceremony and slips a snake down the dress of the mayor’s cruel daughter, whom we learn later on had arranged for her reaping out of jealousy over a boy. Notwithstanding the disappointment over his mentee, Coriolanus is determined to win the prize to buy back the grand apartment his family used to live in and to pay for his University fees.
His fourth time at the helm, director Francis Lawrence pays much detail building the first chapter of the movie. From the contempt that Coriolanus’ fellow classmate Sejanus (Josh Andrés Rivera) holds of the Games, to the disdain that Cas holds of Coriolanus, to the nefariousness of head gamemaker Dr Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis), and to the witticisms of the Games’ host Lucretius ‘Lucky’ Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman), there is a lot of ground that Lawrence covers diligently – and we might say, deftly – to lay the base for what is to come, and to remain faithful to author Suzanne Collins’ book.
Even so, Lawrence keeps a tight focus on the budding relationship between Coriolanus and Lucy, which is the beating heart of this two-and-a-half hour long saga. Heeding Tigris’ advice, Coriolanus goes all out to win Lucy’s trust, including waiting for her arrival to the Capitol at the train station, jumping into the vehicle that will transport her and other tributes to a caged enclosure where they will be held prior to the Games, and bringing her food as she requested. And to their credit, Blyth and Zegler are terrific together as the leading couple, especially in making us buy into their quiet defiance of the rules and mores that separate them.
Likewise, the Games proper – which forms the second chapter of the movie – is fascinating. The broad construct would be familiar from the earlier trilogy, but Lawrence goes for a grittier, more stripped down version of the Games that reinforces how they are ultimately a spectacle of de-humanisation. It is also rather ingenious how certain traits of the Games, such as the ability to sponsor gifts to the tributes, are exploited as tactics to enable Coriolanus to give Lucy an upper hand. Without spoiling it for those who haven’t read the book, let’s just say that Lucy’s ability to emerge as victor is no coincidence, and further underlines how the bond between Coriolanus and Lucy is strengthened over the course of the Games.
Views will be divided whether Lawrence should have followed the example of ‘Mockingjay’ to split the adaptation into two feature-length films, but here he and screenwriters Michael Arndt and Michael Lesslie make the decision of a deliberate tonal shift in the third and final chapter, which sees Coriolanus confront his motivations, inclinations and allegiances. Though it is probably no surprise that Coriolanus will choose the Capitol, it is nonetheless riveting to see how he gradually turns against the people he had held dear for the sake of his own self-interest, revealing therefore a thirst for power that would define his presidency in the much later years. Be warned though, the pacing does become more deliberate than in the first two acts, so it will demand some patience for this character study to prove itself rewarding.
Like the earlier movies though, this prequel benefits from excellent casting. Blyth is superb as Coriolanus, especially how he reveals different shades of his character over the course of the movie. Though the focus is on Coriolanus, Zegler more than holds her own as Lucy, balancing both pluck and fear to deliver an edgy performance that grabs your attention. Against their younger fellow cast members, the veterans here seem to relish the opportunity to ham it up, whether Davis’ diabolical mad scientist act or Dinklage’s spiteful professor or even Schwartzman’s deprecating ‘50s-style host. None quite match the nuance that the late Philip Seymour Hoffman brought to the series, but this is as stellar a cast as it gets.
It’s been slightly less than a decade since the last Hunger Games movie, and though we left the series weary, ‘The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ is an invigorating refresh that reminds us of what had made the dystopia so enchanting in the first place. Lest we forget, the totalitarian regime of the Capitol is after all driven by the view, however misbegotten, that humanity is fundamentally evil and barbaric. It is the struggle against that which gives meaning to our protagonists, whether Katniss Everdeen or Lucy Gray, and which also corrupts Coriolanus irrevocably by the end of this story. Thanks to Coriolanus and Lucy, and therefore Blyth and Zegler, this ballad doesn’t just hum, it resounds and resonates loud and bright.
(More intimate and grounded than its predecessors, this prequel soars on the back of a compelling character study, compelling performances and a poignant exploration of human nature)
Review by Gabriel Chong