In this tempestuous and revealing prequel, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes delivers what was expected— a reinvented plot, character backstories, suspenseful stakes—and elevates it a step further through stellar performances, a lingering moral ambiguity, and a refreshing retro-futuristic look. The film explores songbirds and snakes both literally and figuratively through the eccentric, kind-hearted singer Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) and the ambitious, cunning Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), who fans of the original installation might recognise as its main antagonist.
The film takes viewers back to the 10th annual Hunger Games. To maintain people’s attention, university dean Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage) establishes a mentorship scheme wherein twenty four of his brightest students are each paired with a district tribute. The mentor who garners most viewership wins the university scholarship. With a high ambition and a low income, Coriolanus Snow determines to win the trust of his assigned tribute, Lucy Gray. Her singing skills and sassy character could prove useful in securing an advantage for the scholarship he so desperately needs. Snow and Lucy both navigate worlds that aren’t their own; the former plays manipulative games to fit in with the ostentatious rich and the latter performs for the sake of survival in the face of a cruel society.
As someone who has not read the original material and cannot attest to its adaptability, the film stood by itself as a suspenseful and ruminating cinematic experience. The dynamic between Lucy and Snow was fascinating with its ambiguity of what was and was not real— a distant cousin of the situation Katniss and Peeta were once in. The stakes, however, are completely different, making the film alluring through sympathising with a future villain. Lucy’s naturalistic melodic aura contrasted that of Snow’s industrial Capitol life, yet they at times, to many’s surprise, took a try in each other’s world, deconstructing the moral binary of good and evil. The fickle line between trust and manipulation allows for a multitude of interpretations within different viewers, especially in regards to the couple’s true attraction and ultimate goals. I particularly enjoy films who push audiences to further inspection and their own conclusions on what transpired.
In addition, the supporting cast is impressive; head gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis), Tigris Snow (Hunter Schafer), and Lucky Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman) balance the film’s levels of creepiness, reason, and comedy incredibly so. Music-wise, Rachel Zegler’s voice is bright and beautiful, further complimented by the catchy and minimalistic original soundtracks. As per cinematography, the film’s direction was reliably handled by Francis Lawrence, who also took charge in the previous three films of the franchise.
However, despite its staggering two hour and forty minutes run time, the movie still failed to develop some details that could have strengthened its narrative. For instance, Lucy and Snow’s relationship had room for development; their moments together felt like singular highlights instead of a strong continuous influence over both interests. Yet, it could be argued that the film’s what-ifs are reflected in the fact that their relationship was underdeveloped and short-lived. Furthemore, the plotline in the third act involving Snow’s best friend Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés River) felt more like a means to an end instead of a poignant rift that perpetuated Snow’s descent into paranoia. Perhaps, less time in the initial acts could have made up for the last’s lack.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is determined to cover an extensive amount in a single film; its attempt is respectable and does not fail but leaves audiences wanting slightly more. I cannot hone what book readers believe to be a successful adaptation, but I am sure that some flaws can be (arguably) overlooked by the film introducing another candidate for 2023’s top male character in a simple white t-shirt. In all seriousness, the movie does a compelling exploration of moral pressure in systems that do not cater to the majority, Snow included. The film respectfully does not overly focus on a single aspect but allows for the unique world-building and distorted reality that made the original franchise so memorable and this new installation so enjoyable.