The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes: Truly a Ballad?

22/12/2023

James Payne (he/him) discusses the new Hunger Games prequel completely spoiler free

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Image by IMDb

By James Payne

On May 19, 2020, Suzanne Collins surprised the world with her Hunger Games prequel novel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Having read the original trilogy a boatload of times, I was ecstatic. It features the series’ main antagonist, President Snow, as the main character and narrator. This book turned the tables with readers discovering more about Snow and becoming a more nuanced character in the process.

Coriolanus’s narration is the definition of intrusive thoughts, his biases and snobbery constantly seeping through the cracks. However, readers see parts of him not visible in the original trilogy – romance, friendship, love of family, and a backstory that perfectly sets up his character in The Hunger Games. It’s definitely a narrative that deserves to be told rather than a cash grab. It has to be said, it’s the least interesting, and worst of the series for me. So how does the movie adaptation (directed by Francis Lawrence, and released on November 17, 2023) compare?

In short, it’s the perfect adaptation. The tone of the text is translated to an absolute T. Dark, gritty, disturbing, emotional, tense, and horrifying are just some of the words I’d use to describe it. Yet, at times, it’s beautiful. But it’s always sickly. I was truly shocked that visually, it’s exactly how I pictured it would be. I feel like I’ve had dreams of the novel, and they looked like this. It also retains the structure of the text with its three parts, meaning that in many ways it’s literally the carbon copy of what I expected it to be.

But it gave me more than the novel did. The obvious factor is that the narrative is a ‘ballad.’ Actually, hearing the musical numbers, rather than reading their words, was a treat. Lucy Gray Baird, portrayed by Rachel Zegler, has the perfect voice. She is very much a theatre kid and, being one myself, I adored her portrayal. Is the film a ‘musical,’ as some have claimed? Absolutely not. Does it emphasise the importance of music to the characters and themes? Absolutely. I’m listening to the soundtrack right now, and it’s just banger after banger. Such a vibe. Zegler is able to convey raw emotion and made my heart rise and crescendo in ways the novel just could not.

Music is essential to the movie. Lucy Gray’s songs all have lyrics to analyse deeply. They facilitate her character growth and that of others. They enrich those themes that we are familiar with from The Hunger Games: class, wealth, sadism, and oppression. They also establish an immediate emotional connection to Lucy Gray, which I also felt with Katniss. Musical numbers are something we are familiar with from ‘The Hanging Tree’, but there are definitely more bops in this movie. I connect with a soundtrack often more than I do with literature. It’s personal. It’s connection. Through these songs and lyrics, I was immersed in a world of injustice, inequality, and brutality. Remind you of real life, anyone?

Coriolanus, played by Tom Blyth, also gave more of a nuanced performance. In the novel, let’s face it, he’s just a jerk. In the movie, he’s still a jerk, but also stresses those other versions of himself previously mentioned. This way, while I disliked him, I couldn’t help but find myself rooting for him sometimes. He even made me tear up, which isn’t too hard in fiction. Seriously though, the actor did a fantastic job. I appreciate his character much more now. Class, war, parental trauma it’s so complex. I found myself rapidly analysing throughout the whole experience.

Speaking of which, the 2-hour 38-minute runtime is brilliant. I got my money’s worth, that’s for sure. Never did I feel bored, unlike the book. I’ve heard one criticism from some that the final part feels like a completely different film and that it would’ve benefited from two movies. I disagree. Part one is set up. Part two is action. Part three is exposition. Trust me, it works.

Iconic, devastating, edge of your seat stuff.

In terms of the characters, the two leads are, as already stated, perfect. They have such an intriguing dynamic. You’ve also got some familiar names. Some retained their brilliance from the book, like Highbottom (Peter Dinklage). Others actually shine more in the movie, like Dr Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis), the twisted game-maker who made my skin crawl or rather slither. Let’s not forget my absolute favourite, Sejanus (Josh Andrés Rivera). Seriously, this movie made me adore his character even more. You will love his performance.

It’s not quite perfect. Some characters are still completely forgettable – I actually had to look up their names. Mayfair, Pliny, Bobbin. The absolute epitome of a side character. In comparison, The Hunger Games has a wide variety of exceptional side characters. To list a few of my personal favourites: Cinna, Joanna, Effie, Finnick, and Rue. The villains also feel much more threatening in the original four movies. That, however, is not a negative. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes depicts villains in a different way. How does Coriolanus become the villain? How does a villain work through scientific experimentation?

Now, I know the director can’t adapt every single scene from the book. I don’t want to be that person, but there was some content in Part 3 with a certain family (not naming names, due to spoilers). In the book, it’s more fleshed out, and an extra 10-15 minutes with more scenes there would’ve been appreciated. Some might comment that it’s not as action-packed as the four films, but honestly, it’s action in a different way. It’s The Hunger Games in a younger and different form that prevents the series from getting stale and honestly rejuvenates and expands the world brilliantly.

Just a random thought, but I’m surprised the movie isn’t a 15. It has two of the most distressing scenes of the entire franchise, as to whether this is a negative is up to you. For me, I have no issue with it. I’ve also seen some comments that the ending is ‘frustrating.‘ Without spoilers, I say that it’s great. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

To finish then, it’s a movie that is the exact image of how I imagined the novel on the big screen. It’s just shy of perfection. It gave me more than the book did, ranking between Catching Fire as my favourite and the original being my third favourite. I loved it. I’ll be thinking about this film for a long time, and I definitely want to see it again. Let’s remember, before Katniss Everdeen, there was Lucy Gray Baird. And before President Snow, there was Coriolanus. Now just who are these characters? Watch the film to find out.