The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a prequel, set sixty-four years prior to the events of The Hunger Games. My biggest concern going into Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was it would treat President Snow the way Anakin Skywalker or Maleficent were treated in their prequels. You know what I mean – an evil character given a backstory where they aren’t just misunderstood, but portrayed as outright pure goodness. Gross.
Young Coriolanus “Coryo” Snow (Tom Blyth) is most definitely not oozing with goodness. But, he’s also not pure evil yet. He’s eighteen years old, his family is broke, and the dean of his school hates him. He’s in survival mode and doing everything he can at school to earn a prestigious award that includes a handsome sum of money. That means he will be nice to who he needs to be nice to and undercut whomever stands in his way. He’s every bit the man we met in the first film.
Unfortunately, academy dean Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage) hates Coryo. It’s with no small amount of glee that Casca informs the entire class that the award will not be given to the best student this year. Instead, the top twenty-four students will serve as mentors to the tributes in the tenth annual Hunger Games and the prize winner will be the one whose tribute performs the best. Importantly, this does not necessarily mean the tribute that wins the games, but the one who is the most entertaining. At this point in time, the war with the districts is still fresh on the capital citizens’ minds and the games are not garnering good ratings. How’s that for first-world problems?
Due to obligatory screenwriting cliches, Snow is mentoring the District 12 girl, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler). Like with Katniss, everyone assumes Lucy Gray will die early. During the reaping (the tribute selection ceremony), Lucy Gray shows more than a little defiance and, sensing an opportunity, Snow proposes to Head Gamemaker Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis) that viewers be allowed to sponsor tributes by sending them supplies during the games. Snow then decides to meet Lucy Gray when she arrives in the capital in order to earn her trust, even jumping into the back of the truck with the tributes as they are transported to their holding cages. As Snow is using Lucy Gray to further his own plans, Gaul is doing the same with Snow to improve ratings for the games.
The movie is broken into three distinct parts (each has its own title card), each devoted to the evolution of Snow’s character. At first, Snow regards people from the district as little more than animals, so it’s easy for him to do what is necessary increase his chances of winning the prize. What Snow doesn’t count on is developing feelings for Lucy Gray. It starts as accepting her as a human being when she shows her spirit through defiance. Once in her company, he gains appreciation for her own cold calculations to survive. Once Lucy Gray is competing in the arena, Snow needs her to survive for reasons beyond his family’s survival. Eventually, this culminates with Snow confronting all of his conflicting feelings and forced to make choices. It’s a fantastic arc that ends where it needs to.
Not to be outdone, Lucy Gray is just as conflicted as Snow. She initially hates the capital citizens as much as Snow hates the district people, but she can’t help seeing the good in Snow. The two of them are quite the couple, both playing for their own survival while opening themselves up to each other and relying on each other. And the whole time, we are never certain which emotions are real and which are merely a facade for survival.
On top of the well-written character arcs of Lucy Gray and Snow, the actors themselves deliver fantastic performances filled with nuance and emotion. Zegler and Blyth are both perfectly cast, but there’s a great argument for the always on-point Davis as the star of this show (apologies to Dinklage, who was also very good). Gaul is a mix between Pennywise the Clown and a James Bond villain. She is obviously the origin of what would become the wild aesthetics and personal affectations adopted by the capital citizens in later years. But she is also frighteningly, yet subtly, logical in her discussions of the games with Snow. In short, she is a visual and mental nightmare.
The film also maintains the gritty and raw visuals of the original Hunger Games. The games themselves are as brutal as PG-13 allows and District 12 is as hellish as we remember. Even the capital is a terrifying spectacle, still recovering from the war, but also as a contrast to the districts. Everything we see augments the feeling the film is trying to convey – desperation and vengeance.
I’d like to thank director Francis Lawrence, screenwriters Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt, and Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins for not pulling a George Lucas. Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes was much better than I was expecting and does justice to Snow as an origin story. We believe Snow is capable of becoming the President Snow everyone fears. And that is far more than we could say about Anakin Skywalker after The Phantom Menace, which was just gross.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back, even if you have other first world problems.