Hunger Games Movies Will Continue to Make the Case for Prequels

The announcement of a new Hunger Games prequel, this time about Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch, will undoubtedly be met with some skepticism. But folks should let Suzanne Collins cook.

Rachel Zegler in Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes Review
Photo: Lionsgate

There is a new Hunger Games movie in the works, and this time it will be a prequel about Haymitch Abernathy, the District 12 tribute and champion played by Woody Harrelson in the original cycle of films in the 2010s. The news came simultaneously Thursday with the announcement of the book upon which the film will be based: Suzanne Collins’ forthcoming The Hunger Games: Sunrise on the Reaping.

According to the press release, the new Young Adult novel and film will follow the events of the 50th Hunger Games, aka the Second Quarter Quell, when Haymitch became an unwilling tribute as a teenager. Presumably the experiences he endured both in the arena and the Capitol will turn him into the bitter middle-aged drunkard who Katniss Everdeen meets and redeems over the course of the original The Hunger Games story, which is set 24 years after the events of Sunrise on the Reaping.

We imagine that many fans and readers will have a knee-jerk reaction to the news: another Hunger Games prequel? And this time about a young Woody Harrelson?!

We’re certainly not going to fault Collins or film studio Lionsgate with originality after deciding to return to the Panem well. However, we also can recognize when we’re wrong, such as when we previously expressed skepticism toward the prospect of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes—another prequel about the surprisingly sympathetic youth that led to a monster in one Coriolanus Snow. That book and the 2023 film it spawned provided a surprisingly credible and affecting portrait of how the choices we make in life can have devastating consequences.

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It’s also interesting to note that the commercial appeal of prequels are going be tested again. Indeed, a recent and sudden conventional wisdom spread throughout the industry last month after the frustrating box office failure of a genuinely fantastic and daring prequel like Furiosa. “Prequel stories are rarely compelling, because the ending is predetermined,” goes the newly current thinking. That rationalization seems all the more odd when one remembers last year’s final blockbuster, Wonka, was a prequel to one of the most beloved children’s films of all-time, complete with a major recasting.

Meanwhile The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes played and played with small week-on-week drops. That leggy performance led to a global haul of $337 million. It was down from the franchise’s height of popularity during Jennifer Lawrence’s tenure, but it was more than profitable against a $100 million budget (something we cannot so far say about most of summer 2024’s output so far). Hence a Haymitch Abernathy movie.

The reasons for Furiosa’s unfortunate underperformance remain a bit more elusive, but it seems Collins and Lionsgate are confident they can continue to make prequels that are accessible and interesting to readers and moviegoers despite the fans knowing how the story ends. And to be fair, they did it once already.

One of the reasons Songbirds & Snakes played so well for its audience is that it was not a prequel besotted with populating the frame with “easter eggs” and nudges to the audience like many recent Star Wars properties, nor perhaps was it swinging for the fences like Furiosa. Instead it returned to its world for a story that was familiar for those who enjoyed the original Hunger Games movies while shrewdly shifting the focus, even if ever so slightly. While there is indeed a Hunger Games in that film, like the title promises, the 10th annual Hunger Games is more a pretext for a story about the vanities and the self-delusions a person can cultivate to rationalize their success (and eventually normalize heinosu actions). The film follows a young Snow (Tom Blyth) who reluctantly is forced to be complicit in the ritual sacrifice of children, including the beguiling Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler). Still, the actual Hunger Games battle royale comprises a tiny portion of the movie.

More than half the film is about essaying Snow’s youthful mistakes and handful of virtues, and the film continues for nearly an hour more after Lucy Gray Baird is crowned the unlikely champion of the Games. Her victory, in fact, would hardly qualify for action movie spectacle. Rather the picture follows the pair of would-be lovers for months after the Games, all the way through the final decisions that lead to Snow fully aligning himself with the Capitol’s tyranny. Going in, you know he is destined to become a despot, but the film works as a tragedy where audiences are asked to fear the outcome.

In retrospect, Songbirds & Snakes even shares some DNA with the once reviled but now reappraised Star Wars prequels: it tells a very different story from its predecessors about a man with the capacity for good, but who ultimately chooses cruelty and power. (It also honestly does it with better writing and acting.)

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Obviously that approach will not be available to Sunrise on the Reaping. But Collins has shown a knack once already for returning to the world she created and justifying an exercise in essentially expanding backstory and lore. So one hopes she will resist the urge of other more recent prequels that might wish to use the film as a chance to just plug in holes—for example revealing what truly happened to Lucy Gray Baird or introducing us to, say, Lenny Kravitz’s Cinna as a child. A better dynamic would find a fresh corner of this world to explore and building from there a new story, not grafting itself onto an old one. The emphasis of the title—a sunrise on the reaping—might even mean we’ll spend a lot more time on life in District 12 before the Hunger Games begin.

Can that work as an interesting prequel for audiences who already know how this kind of story goes? We’ll find out when Sunrise on the Reaping hits book stores in 2026, and the movie shortly thereafter.