Review ‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’

Attention people of Panem! Welcome to the tenth annual Hunger Games! There will be songbirds, snakes, snow, scandal and a full on soundtrack. But despite the same creative team being behind this revisiting of the titular series, this entry strays from its Lawrence-led predecessors in more than a few ways.

Instead of a Hunger Games movie, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is better described as a character drama surrounding the villainous President Snow inside the fictitious world of Panem. I say this because although the plot revolves heavily around them, the Games themselves only make up around twenty minutes of screen time. The rest of the film follows Coriolanus Snow (Tom Plyth) during his time at the Capitol Academy approximately sixty five years before the events of the original movies. We learn about the history of Panem and the origin of the Hunger Games, as we get a peek into what’s called ‘The Dark Days’… a time of war between the Capitol and districts that had citizens starving and impoverished—some even resorting to cannibalism in order to survive. 

Coriolanus (sometimes called Corio) (but never Anus?) comes from a Capitol dynasty with a tremendous legacy and integral ties to the Hunger Games. But ever since the Dark Days, the Snow family has been struggling to make ends meet while still putting on their Capitol-sized personas for everyone around them every morning. Snow’s family does this as a means of survival amongst the savage upper class within the Capitol, who would undoubtedly eat them alive should they discover they’re as poor as families out in the districts. This plays to the central idea of the film; the world is its very own version of the Games and we’re all just doing what we need to in order to be victors.

In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, The Hunger Games aren’t the spectacle we’re used to seeing. There are no sponsors, banquets, parties, or fame. The games themselves are quite simple; the Gamemakers place twenty four tributes in an empty arena and televise their fight to the death. However, after ten years of this barbaric (and boring) behaviour, the people of Panem have grown tired of watching. This is the problem Head Gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis) faces in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, and she looks to the Academy as a way to spark the country’s interest in the games once again. The zany, charismatic and completely unhinged Dr. Gaul recruits twenty four of the Academy’s star pupils to mentor this year’s tributes in the hopes of bringing more attention to the Games. Amongst them is a zesty Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), who wows the country when she breaks out in song upon being chosen at the District 12 reaping. As an incentive, the Academy promises the winning mentor a prize consisting of life-changing money. Enter Coriolanus Snow, Lucy Gray’s new mentor. 

We all grew up with ‘The Hunger Games’ books and movies… but they did not grow up with us. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is very much geared towards a younger audience (likely to widen its box office reach) and may tackle some dark themes, but often shies away from the more mature subject matter. I found myself wishing this had been a two-part film noir or a limited series so we could’ve had enough time to focus and stew on the major character moments that seem to race by. There’d been talk of making this entry a two-parter (like the Mockingjay movies) due to it being the lengthiest of the four novels, but instead, producers decided to squeeze the story into an already hearty runtime of two hours and thirty-six minutes. And it still wasn’t long enough to properly explore everything Collins built in her fourth novel.

The problem with The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is that audiences will leave this film wanting to have seen more than what they’re given. Whether or not this franchise is trying to widen their horizons and explore new stories within their IP, a lot of the conflict and character motivations in this movie fall through the cracks while watching. By the end, I was confused as to what exactly changed Snow and how he’d transitioned from good to evil. While still a valiant entry into what seems to be an ever-growing franchise, fans eager for answers might just walk away with more questions.

Watch the trailer for Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Lionsgate releases The Hunger Games : The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes in theatres Nov 17, 2023

[Review by guest blogger Jurgen Sosa]