By all accounts, the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games prequel novel The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a fairly faithful one, so if that’s all you care about, prepare to be dazzled. The rest of you are in for a long, but mostly rewarding, haul that jumps back 64 years before the events of the original Hunger Games, when Katniss Everdeen jumped into the fray of the televised sporting event that pits two children from every district in the nation of Panem to fight to the death. Serving as the connective tissue between this prequel and The Hunger Games is the younger version of Coriolanus Snow (played here by Tom Blyth), who would grow up to become the president of Panem (Donald Sutherland in the original films).
The Snow family is borderline destitute, with Coriolanus set to be its shining light and the likely candidate to win an academic monetary prize at school that will very much help them out. But at the last minute, one of the game’s creators and a professor at Snow’s elite school, Dean Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage) decides to make the students compete for the prize to become mentors to the young tributes. Although winning the games (the 10th edition is played out in this movie; the first Hunger Games featured the 75th) is not the only factor in getting the prize, it’s clearly important. But the real goal of the mentorship is to boost the games’ rating (apparently the outside world doesn’t enjoy watching kids kill kids as much as the government thought it would). Snow has many ideas about how to do that, ideas that he’s able to pass along to the head game-master, Dr. Volumnia Gaul (an absolutely unhinged Viola Davis), making Snow a leading prize candidate right off the bat.
Snow is assigned tribute Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), from the impoverished District 12, who has the voice of a country angel and immediately becomes a viewer favorite every time she sings on camera. The film features several supporting characters, including Snow’s friends and fellow classmates, his grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) and cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer), and of course, all of the other tributes. There’s also the color commentator Lucky Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman, playing an ancestor of some sort to Stanley Tucci’s character from the original movies), who is exceedingly annoying in every scene in this film. But the only relationship that really seems to matter (to the filmmakers or the audience) is between Snow and Lucy, and any time the story strays from them, it’s easy to feel less invested.
Adapted by Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt, and directed by Francis Lawrence (who helmed most of the original Hunger Games movies, as well as Red Sparrow), The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes has a running time so long (more than 2.5 hours) that it feels like it has an extra act tacked on (they are clearly planning more films in this series). The actual games are in the middle of the movie, with a whole other 40-45 minutes that follow involving Snow’s punishment for cheating during the games to help his tribute. Unfortunately, the side characters are still a part of this closing chapter, so it comes as no surprise that the guilt that Highbottom feels about creating the games in the first place, or the fact that Snow’s best friend is trying to help a rebellion in District 12 feel like padding and make the movie feel as long as it is, if not longer.
Still, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes has a scale and scope that is impressive, and features a level of production design that tells the story of Panem just a few years after a violent revolution attempt. The arena where the games are fought is bombed the day before they are set to kick off, and the demolished venue is an impressive, vast landscape for the games to take place. Another unexpected element to the film is that it’s about two songs away from being a musical, and Zegler not only gets to explore the tougher side of her character, but also gets to sing her heart out in an inspiring and folkier way than we’ve heard her before. Reservations aside, the most important aspect to this film is that it makes me curious and gets me excited about what comes next.
The film is now playing theatrically.
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