The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes

While it’s not without its callbacks to the original young adult trilogy, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes — adapted from Suzanne Collins’s bestselling 2020 prequel — intentionally feels worlds away from the version of Panem that fans are used to. Set sixty-four years before Katniss volunteers as tribute, Ballad presents the Capitol as struggling to heal from the years-long war that led to the establishment of the Hunger Games. Rather than being pampered, trained as warriors, and thrown into elaborate arenas with their own ecosystems, tributes in the tenth annual Games scramble after each other in a crumbling old stadium, still dressed in clothes from home. 

The cast and crew (led by Francis Lawrence, director of three of the four previous films) transform Collins’s contemplative, illuminating origin story into a film that successfully serves as both an introduction and companion piece to The Hunger Games and its sequels. The original trilogy trusted its young adult audience to look past the grandeur and brutality on the surface and find the hope simmering underneath; Ballad flips the script, asking them to see the humanity of this world where, even as mansions crumble and uniforms are mended in secret, classism perseveres. Lucy Gray Baird, the female tribute from District 12, charms the audience with her Appalachian-inspired folk music (sung to perfection by Rachel Zegler), but her sincerity is an outlier. The vapid commentary by the Games’ new host foreshadows the glib treatment of child murder to come, as the laughter that every quip elicits (I won’t spoil any of the one-liners here, exquisitely delivered by Jason Schwartzman) quickly sours as dehydration claims a twelve-year-old pleading to go home. 

Collins’s choice to make Coriolanus Snow, eventual fascist president of Panem and antagonist to Katniss, the prequel’s protagonist was a choice that polarized fans — What, are we meant to like him now? — but his deftly crafted teenage inner monologue seems harmlessly unreliable (like a dystopian Holden Caulfield) until its poisonous undertones are both undeniable and irreversible. This duality is well-represented through Tom Blyth’s charismatic and calculated leading performance, which becomes increasingly reminiscent of the dictator to come, his family’s motto — “Snow lands on top” — sounding more and more like a threat. For young adults not quite ready for the real-life stories of unchecked ego and destructive greed in this year’s adult blockbusters Oppenheimer and Killers of the Flower Moon, Ballad’s fictional approach is still impressively mature — Snow sees the cruelty of the Games at their basest, but is more intrigued by the idea of dressing them up than tearing them down; he gains the trust of friends and family, but considers it a betrayal when they won’t allow themselves to be controlled and manipulated by him.

Fans of the book are sure to crave some of the depth that the length of the novel lends to its wide cast of characters but will likely be satisfied with how the story plays out, especially its chilling finale. The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes cements The Hunger Games as a series that knows how to challenge its audience and that, even almost a decade after its previous installments, has something to say — and sing. 

Emma A. Shacochis

Emma A. Shacochis is an editorial intern for The Horn Book, Inc., studying towards an MA in Publishing at Emerson College.

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