“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is an exceptional prequel made successful by a talented cast and well-built setting, but it falls short on its pacing and ability to fully flesh out central characters. A revival of the beloved Hunger Games series, the film debuted in theaters on November 17, 2023, exactly 11 years after the release of the original “Hunger Games” movie. Directed by Francis Lawrence, the director of “Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and “Hunger Games: Mockingjay” parts one and two, the movie is set 64 years before the first Hunger Games film. The movie tells the backstory of Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), a power-hungry Capitol student, and his relationship with Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a tribute from District 12. Snow’s romantic feelings for Lucy Gray, however, are complicated by his desperate struggle for recognition amongst Capitol society, as his formerly powerful family’s fall from wealth has pushed him to the very margins of the Capitol’s elite. As the movie progresses through its three acts, Snow’s character is reshaped from a relatively innocent young boy into the cruel and tyrannical ruler the audience knows he becomes.
Zegler stands out for her portrayal of Lucy Gray Baird. In particular, Zegler chose to sing all of her songs live, a decision that adds realistic emotion to each scene and stays true to Lucy Gray’s character, who is a member of a musical group called the Covey. A particularly powerful song was “The Old Therebefore/Singing at Snakes,” sung during the moment that Lucy Gray wins the Hunger Games. Zegler’s singing and acting in this scene, along with the background composition, manifest the transformation of Lucy Gray from tribute to victor. Blyth, in his first major film role, does well in the lead role of Snow. He embodies Snow’s charisma but also his hunger for power and control. Viola Davis, who plays Capitol scientist and Head Gamemaker Dr. Gaul, is incredible to watch in her performance as well, and perfectly portrays the cruel mad scientist and sinister evil mentor. Hunter Schafer also perfectly executes her role of Tigris, Snow’s gentle and empathetic cousin. Additionally, Jason Schwartzman excelled in his role of Lucky Flickerman. He was strikingly similar to his relative and host Caesar Flickerman in the original trilogy, and added a much needed touch of humor to the otherwise dark and gruesome movie.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes successfully constructs a world reminiscent of the future Panem, yet rooted in a different time period within a nation recovering from a long and bloody war. Through skilled production and costume design, this world is vividly brought to life, using muted colors, dull lighting, and broken architecture to convey the oppression of the districts by the Capitol and the depravity of the Capitol itself. Yet the grandiose nature of buildings and statues in the Capitol also mirror the glamor and imposing architecture of its future version. The world building of the movie is supported by the soundtrack as well. James Newton Howard, who composed the score for the original four movies, returns for the prequel. The instrumental incorporates string orchestra, percussion, brass, and choir-like vocals, and is emotionally impactful and effective in creating tension and drama when needed. In addition, Howard includes several allusions to the original movies. For example, audience members see the origin of “The Hanging Tree,” a tune written and sung by Lucy Gray that becomes an iconic song for Katniss and the rebellion later on. Such details connect the two worlds of Katniss and Lucy Gray and remind the audience that they are part of the same world.
Despite its strengths, “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” feels rushed, especially in the third act, where Snow undergoes the most significant character changes. The fast pacing makes it harder for the audience to understand Snow’s loss of innocence and complete switch to evil, especially without having read the book and knowing his inner dialogue. The movie is not short, with a 158-minute run time, but could have benefited from at least an additional half hour. The film could have also been split into two parts, similar to Mockingjay, with one centered on Snow in the Capitol and the other on his time in District 12. This would have allowed more time for the characters to be fully fleshed out, and the inclusion of more plot from the book.
For fans of the Hunger Games, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is well worth watching, and evokes many similar feelings from that of the original movies. The film may leave you wanting a little more, but overall is executed well by the cast and satisfies what’s expected from a book-to-movie adaptation.