It’s eight years since audiences were last immersed in the world of The Hunger Games, the dystopian tale of oppression and rebellion based on the novels by Suzanne Collins. Now it’s time to return to Panem with The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, a robust-if-overlong prequel based on her 2020 novel.
Once again, Francis Lawrence – who has directed all but the first of the franchise – is back in the director’s seat. But can a Hunger Games film flourish without Jennifer Lawrence’s antihero Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of the original movies?
The answer has to be “yes”, given Collins’s story takes the same approach as the prequels to the original Star Wars movies. Just as those told of the journey to the Dark Side of young Jedi, Anakin Skywalker, this tells of Coriolanus Snow. That name will be familiar to any fan of the earlier films – he’s the scheming President Snow, played by the wolfish Donald Sutherland. Here, we join him as a young man, ahead of the tenth annual Hunger Games – the battle royale-style bloodbath between specially selected teenagers.
Played by British actor Tom Blyth (who featured in Terence Davies’s Benediction), the blonde-haired Coriolanus is one of the chosen mentors for this year’s tributes, who will enter the arena in the Capitol and duke it out to the death with their fellow competitors live on television. He’s paired with a young girl from District 12, Lucy Gray Baird (West Side Story star Rachel Zegler), a brave and resolute songstress who is part of a travelling musician group named The Covey.
She might be called “runt girl” by one onlooker, but Lucy Gray is resourceful – at one stage she slips a small snake (she has an ability to charm these slithery beasts) down the back of a rival’s dress. Coriolanus appears taken with her. “I want her to live,” he says. So much so, he’s willing to risk everything, including smuggling a powder compact full of rat poison to her, which will come in handy once the games begin.
Compared to those around her, Lucy Gray is inherently decent – refusing, for example, to abandon her fellow District 12 tribute Jessup (Nick Benson). Once the games begin, the fun really does start – as the tributes all run for the nearest weapon and start slashing at those anywhere near them. To his credit, Lawrence is skilled at creating a violent spectacle with no real bloodshed to speak of. The action is pleasing to the eye – from an unexpected rebel bomb to wayward drones buzzing into the arena and smashing into the tributes.
The Hunger Games films have always been larger-than-life; think Elizabeth Banks or Stanley Tucci’s outlandish characters in the original movie. And this is no different. Viola Davis hams it up as Dr Volumnia Gaul, the head gamemaker. There’s also a mustachioed Jason Schwartzman as the smarmy host, “the weatherman and amateur magician” Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman. And then there’s Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage as Casca Highbottom, the Dean who originally created this bloody adolescent showdown.
As for Zegler, who puts her musical skills to the test throughout – she really is the songbird of the piece – she is a likeable heroine. But ultimately, the focus is on Blyth, who smartly essays his character’s transition.
At 160 minutes, this is an epic Hunger Games story with a capital “E”. Some will find the third section – titled “The Peacemaker” – a step too far. But it does wrap up the film’s main theme, that evil is a line that can be crossed.
“I think there’s natural goodness born into us all,” says Lucy Gray. But Coriolanus’s arc proves otherwise. Shot with the same gloomy aesthetic that Lawrence’s earlier Hunger Games films had, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes will certainly appeal to fans of the earlier movies. It’s not as politically on-the-nose as its predecessors, but it still zings along. And despite a couple of oblique nods to the name “Katniss”, this is a Jennifer Lawrence-free zone. Seems like you can make a Hunger Games movie without her.