We have traveled back in time. Taylor Swift’s “1989” is taking over the airwaves, and a new Hunger Games film is in theaters. While the franchise consistently left many fans satisfied, does the new installment live up to the legacy of this series?
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes place 64 years before the original series. Way before Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and the Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) we grew up detesting, the tyrannical President of Panem. He was once just an eighteen-year-old who had recently survived a war. Unsurprisingly, he carries a giant chip on his shoulder.
The Snow name once held weight, but now only three family members remain. There’s Coriolanus (Tom Blyth), of course. There’s also his cousin Tigress (Hunter Schafer), the heart of the Snow family, and his grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan), whom they refer to as Grandma’am. This time around, the Snow family risks losing everything by facing eviction from their home.
Coriolanus, as one of the top-ranking students in his class, has a chance at making things right. He can win the Plinth Prize, which would help his family get back on their feet. He could also afford to attend university, which would further help his family’s standing in society. To accomplish that, however, there’s been a rule change. Before, the best student would win the prize for academic excellence. Now, he must win the Hunger Games as a mentor.
His luck continues to dwindle as he’s assigned Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler). She’s the female tribute of District 12, one of the more impoverished districts. He feels hopeless at first due to the district’s reputation for producing tributes that are more prey than predator. That all changes when she’s able to turn the odds in her favor as she surprises everyone. She draws attention to herself during the reaping ceremony by singing.
There’s much to admire about this film as a fan and a casual moviegoer. It quickly whisks you away, back to the world we once knew. It’s explicitly divided into three parts that frequently lag due to the film’s bloated nature. While it may affect the pacing, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes quickly picks up with occasional jaw-dropping moments, strong enough to shake up the most restless moviegoer. That being said, the structure of the film ultimately ends up being the ideal choice. It’s preferable to have this final result instead of dividing the book it is based on into multiple films for profit… as was done with The Hobbit prequel trilogy.
While The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes place many years before the previous films, nostalgia meets satisfaction. Francis Lawrence is back. Having directed the final three films of the original franchise–including The Hunger Games: Catching Fire–many knew they could trust this new take on the games. Taking place specifically during the 10th edition of the games, the Capitol is still finding its footing on how to punish the districts through this barbaric statement. It’s the first year they have implemented a host for the games to boost ratings. This time around, it’s another Flickerman, aka Lucky Flickerman, played eccentrically and humorously by Jason Schwartzman. It also became the first year they allowed gifts for the tributes, along with many other details that upped the stakes in Everdeen’s games.
Lawrence handles this film with enthusiasm, expertise, and familiarity. He was able to get Trish Summerville to return to work on costuming. She’s able to transform and refresh the look and feel we had grown accustomed to. The crew also has fresh faces, including production designer Uli Hanisch. As someone who wasn’t part of the previous films, he’s at an advantage. The architecture and general look of the Capitol is just as grandiose. Every setting feels real and lived in, teasing you to reach toward the screen and step through.
As for the main cast of newcomers, they blew it out of the park. Schafer stands out with her compassionate persona. Viola Davis gives an evil genius performance as Dr. Volumnia Gaul that Dr. Evil would be envious of. And on the sidelines, Ayomide Adegun stuns with one particular scene during the games that is beyond striking. Then there’s Tom Blyth. He does a wonderful job of slowly showcasing the corruption of this young man. It’s chilling. Entirely believable, he’s charming and quick-witted as he attempts to be kind and giving. He wants his cousin to be proud of him, valuing her opinion. So, he tries to make good first impressions and take care of his tribute, Lucy Gray. But, as the film goes on, we’re able to see all his efforts dwindle and crumble as his selfish desire to survive and prove others wrong is far stronger than his morality. Initially, he seems to have a conscience, but by the end, it has all but been silenced.
Beside him stands his foil, a true standout performance of the film. Josh Andrés Rivera as Sejanus Plinth impresses. Whereas Snow scurries and plots for survival like a scorpion, Plinth lives a comfortable life thanks to his family’s wealth. He grew up in District 2, but his father’s money allowed them to move to the Capitol. While he lives a new life with the comfort and security of this oppressive privilege, he refuses to shed where he came from.
He’s able to bring back some of the fire we grew familiar with in Katniss Everdeen’s storyline. A lot of Jennifer Lawrence’s passion is present in Rivera’s eyes. It comes out when he’s thrust into settings where injustice is present. However, Katniss’s acts of rebellion were never intentionally made to become a martyr or a symbol. Plinth is willing to die for what’s right so long as it sends a message. Sejanus stands as a reminder that the fire of revolution can never be extinguished. It can bloom and spread for years to come.
Suzanne Collins originally wrote the Hunger Games trilogy to criticize the nature of our ability as a society to turn war and violence into a spectacle. Now, with the passing of time and the advancement of technology, it’s a daily occurrence more than ever. Pain, suffering, and chaos are easily accessible. Propaganda becomes more and more manipulative. It’s easier to twist the reality of a situation into a narrative that benefits whoever is controlling the broadcast best.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes makes it through as becoming one of the more memorable films of 2023. Despite its languish pace and a hard-to-sell romance, it’s action-packed and worthy of recognition. It also has the bonus of preserving an unfortunately all-too-relevant message that ultimately makes this prequel shine.