Prequels are generally trash, movie musicals are often a mess, and villain-centric narratives are almost always disturbingly sympathetic to wretched ideals. The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a villain-centric prequel with enough singing to count as a quasi-musical. It’s somehow great?
This is because it feels like Suzanne Collins wrote the follow-up novel that’s adapted here for the same reason the Wachowski sisters added one more movie to The Matrix series. The two narrative franchises have shockingly explicit messages that seem to have been somehow warped, missed, or corrupted. These unloved addendums feel like a course correction, like the creators offering up one last, desperate appeal to be heard. “Don’t do us like Fight Club,” they beg.
The mostly disparaging reviews of Songbirds & Snakes have lamented that it isn’t flashy enough, as though stripping down the conceit isn’t the entire point. The story, set decades before Katniss Everdeen ever let loose an arrow, is intentionally not a crowd-pleasing blockbuster adventure, even if a movie studio funded it that way and tacked it on the end of a multi-billion-dollar trilogy. Although ostensibly about the rise of the evil Coriolanus Snow to the throne of the postapocalyptic Panem, it is really just an excuse to ditch all the trappings and lay bare the point that clearly consumed Collins.
This is a series about how we all play a role in the ugliest deeds of the day. From Gaza to Ukraine, from the anti-trans assault to the impoverishment of children, we’re not observers but participants. That is by design. Those in power have seen fit to make us involved in the depravity, not just witnesses. That’s the whole point of the series but specifically Songbirds & Snakes, which walks through the step-by-step plan to have us whistling a tune while we goosestep.
Screenwriters Michael Lessie and Michael Arndt do a savvy job paring down Collins’s best work in the series. The opening is a great example, as it shows a young Coriolanus starving in the days after the war. He’s a poor orphan, but the film doesn’t linger on it. It doesn’t frame it as an explanation for future savagery but logs it as the example an older Coriolanus (Tom Blyth) will cite for his behaviors. In reality, it’s less about enduring trauma and more about anger over being denied his white wealthy privileged birthright.
Ten years into the Hunger Games, the rules are changed due to a lack of interest. Students at an elite academy are assigned to mentor the children selected by lottery from the different regional “districts” to kill each other in a cage match. Coriolanus is desperate to win the top prize and restore his family to glory. He’s assigned to Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a sassy musician from District 12.
The mad scientist in charge of the games, Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis), is intrigued by Coriolanus’s suggestions to get audiences invested by allowing them to directly participate. He proposes allowing gifts to be sent to combatants in the arena and for betting on the survivors. This disgusts his only friend, Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera), the only student who stands against the grotesqueries. As Coriolanus schemes to amplify Lucy Gray’s popularity and odds of winning, he helps bury society even deeper in the amoral hole they’ve forced servants to dig. Also, Jason Schwartzman does a fantastic Stanley Tucci impression.
That impression may be the only colorful thing in the film. Everything is so white and so White. Gone is the spectacle that consumed not only the characters within the original Hunger Games movies but the audience too. Just as Collins came back for more, so too did director Francis Lawrence, as if to show he too wanted a chance at refining the argument. When the brief games do occur, it isn’t some epic set-piece but bare-bones brutality. Because the point isn’t the titular event and never has been. The point is our collective immorality, as Coriolanus explicitly states this time out.
Unlike Viola Davis, who has maybe never been so squeal-inducingly villainously fun, Blyth is never captivating. Whether that’s on purpose or not is unclear. It’s good that we don’t ever really like or feel drawn to a person who grows to be a tyrant. But that could be partially because his performance never pops. Ziegler’s does at times, yes mostly while she’s singing. It’s not only because she’s very good at that but because she seems to understand the character best in those moments. Mid-song, her face and body become feral and savage, showing a wild strength that’s never really there in other moments. Again, is this a decision that was made or just what the performer is capable of delivering?
Regardless, it works. As does the much-maligned long running time. It’s not that the length makes it an epic, it’s that the duration is kind of a punishment for our short attention spans and a dare to pay attention to the slippery slope of fascism. These things don’t happen overnight but in small steps taken by small men with selfish minds. Songbirds & Snakes does not fit with other rousing, crowd-pleasing endeavors because it is designed to remind you of the dangers that lie within those.
Grade = A-
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Amy Nicholson at the New York Times says “Our world so hauntingly echoes Collins’s fictions that the film, shot last summer, moves us to spend its gargantuan running time reflecting on contemporary headlines, mourning the generational tragedy of anger and fear begetting anger and fear.”
Wenlei Ma at Perth Now says “It helps to remember what’s in the title, that it’s a story told in ballad form, with all the ups and downs and twists and turns of an epic tale. It’s not perfect (it could’ve used more Peter Dinklage) but it does enough to add more texture to the Hunger Games universe.”
Travis Hopson at Punch Drunk Critics says “Was anyone sitting around salivating at the idea of a President Snow origin story? Probably not, but with The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakeswe’re getting it anyway, and the result is predictably passionless and derivative, but at least it’s not harmful to the series as a whole.”