There is something to be said about the cycle of sci-fi films made in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. While the decades to come would be defined by Star Wars pew-pews, for a little while there, the genre was fixated almost wholly on grim cynicism, downbeat endings, and unadulterated dystopia. I’m a sucker for all that jazz, even when it’s at its silliest. That would be your “Soylent Green is people!” films or the sequels to Chuck Heston crying, “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” This could also explain why I sat with a smile for nearly all 157 minutes of Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes. It’s grandiose, kooky, and sometimes cruel. But despite being adapted from a YA book, this gray universe imagined by Suzanne Collins still feels refreshingly adult in our own modern multiplex land of bread and circuses.
A belated prequel to the four Hunger Games films that dominated pop culture about a decade ago (three of which Lawrence directed), and based on a Collins novel of the same name, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes attempts the infamously delicate balancing act of creating an origin story for the original series’ greatest villain. This is usually a tantalizing thought experiment for fans, but more often than not leads to disappointing results (again, Star Wars). Hence why returning to Panem’s authoritarian government and televised murder of children always seemed a tricky proposition, particularly as the villain in question is Coriolanus Snow. He was a fiend played beautifully by Donald Sutherland, but there aren’t too many audiences who want to sympathize with a fascist these days (except, well, you know…).
Nonetheless, Collins and Lawrence’s narrative tightrope never falters, at least thematically, even as it boldly stares into the abyss and then crosses over. As played by Tom Blyth, young Corio is sympathetic to a certain point, and his fate is definitely tragic, but he is also the doomed fool in the larger narrative about how corrupt systems present choices. You can make mistakes, but you also must live with the consequences of them, including if you make the Faustian bargain of working in that system.
Perhaps the tragedy of Snow, then, is his privilege damned him to fall from the start. When we meet him as a young man, it’s more than 70 years before the original Hunger Games film, and in more ways than one, Panem is a long way from being covered by Snow’s blanket dictatorship. Corio has in fact grown up on the margins of the Capitol’s elite government, the last male heir of a once great house now in disgrace. He and his cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer) attempt to disguise the Snows’ desperation after a civil war ravaged the wealth of the continent and triggered the creation of the Hunger Games, but he’s on his last credit while attending an exclusive government academy. And he cannot expect much help from the faculty since Dean Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage) has publicly made it his life’s mission to punish young Snow for the sins of his father.
However, opportunity arises when Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis), the first gamemaker in the sinister Hunger Games, turns up to ask the next generation represented by Highbottom’s students for ideas about how to make the Hunger Games great again. After a decade of existence, they’ve largely lost their popularity with even the Capitol citizenry tired of watching shivering, half-starved children brutally murder each other in the same arena. So each student is encouraged to mentor one Hunger Games tribute this year and find ways to make them essentially compelling television fodder.
This is how Snow meets Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler). She’s a charming District 12 folk singer who seems to have stepped right out of the 19th century, and if her voice can beguile enough viewers, Snow might have a ticket out of destitution. But who is using who, and could there be actual affection between the Capitol scion and the girl seemingly condemned to a horrid death?
There is obviously a lot of plot Songbirds & Snakes is working through, and as per the custom with most modern YA adaptations, it does little to reduce or streamline the novelistic detail of the source material. Yet it is also a credit to Lawrence that he can balance all of these details with efficiency and confidence. He easily crafts the most entertaining Hunger Games film since his first contribution to the series, 2013’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The film is sure-footed and builds its bleak world with an earnestness that grounds even the most camp elements in something approaching plausibility.
For the record, the most camp thing in the prequel is a toss-up between Jason Schwartzman’s Hunger Games announcer attempting to out-mug Stanley Tucci by way of street magic, and Davis’ delightful scenery-chewing as Dr. Gaul. The latter’s mad scientist hair adds about two feet to her height, and a perverse smile and leering gaze make this a big swing and a big hit for one of the greatest actresses alive.
Still, it is the softer elements that ground the material and allow it to sing, including most literally Zegler’s melodious voice. Lucy is a clever inversion of Jennifer Lawrence’s beloved Katniss Everdeen. Whereas Katniss was a warrior who was forced to perform for an audience, Lucy is a bonafide performer who is never once in danger of being mistaken as an action heroine. This makes her odds of survival in the Hunger Games all the more bleak. Additionally, while Zegler’s Southern accent is about as believable as Vivien Leigh’s, her charisma is also in a similar vein. With a beaming Appalachian affability and wolfish grin, her overt friendliness belies a shrewd calculation that seems to be desperately playing the angles, including possibly a bewitched Snow.
Theirs is a Hollywood melodrama, which given the material seems to intentionally echo post-Civil War weepies of yesteryear. While the extreme context of their blooming attraction makes it seem distant and suspect, at least in this reviewer’s mind, both performers bring a conviction to it, and Zegler another star turn after West Side Story.
Where the film does run into issues is the 10th annual Hunger Games themselves. The film and book take a lot of pleasure in contrasting the differences between Katniss’ spectacle and what it was like before Snow came to town. Taking place in essentially an outright gladiatorial arena in the classical Roman sense, the games are a naked punishment here; a televised execution where children are dumped into a zoo to await being fed to the proverbial lions in the same clothes they arrived in.
It is Snow and Lucy’s innovations that begin the games’ apparent drift toward reality television sleaze, but for such a grim setting one senses Lawrence is pulling his punches. Whether due to the film obviously seeking a PG-13 rating, or it simply aiming to feel more like an adventure than a trauma, the movie has the kids gallivant around an arena that feels largely constructed with blue screens and CGI. The are far too many choreographed action-packed thrills that contradict the horror of main characters. Also, despite the picture’s grimier context, there is a noticeable lack of dirt under its fingernails, which in retrospect gives a greater appreciation to Gary Ross’ stripped down, no-frills depiction of the Games and District 12 in the original 2012 film.
The prequel similarly hits some pacing issues during an extended denouement that sees Snow face the fallout of all his best and worst intentions. But for longtime fans of the series and many of its early 21st century ilk, such as Harry Potter, this may be part and parcel to the deal.
Most of these films lean a little too heavily on recreating every plot point and character beat on the written page, and can overstay their welcome at times with luxuriant running times. The best of them, however, accomplish so much in their world-building that it is impossible not to be sucked into the fantasy, no matter how foreboding or bittersweet. The Hunger Games: Songbirds & Snakes definitely leans heavily on the bitter, but it does so with big ideas and an old-fashioned sincerity. Like any first snow, it’s cold but strangely pleasant.
The Hunger Games: Songbirds & Snakes opens in theaters on Friday, Nov. 17.