The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
The Hunger Games prequel is constrained by its format
The Hunger Games films were a massive success for Lionsgate released concurrently with the Twilight and Divergent franchises. However, as the former ended and the latter fizzled at the box office, the studio has been left searching for IP to milk. Their rescue came when Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games books, game out with a door-stopper prequel book.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (2023) is a prequel to The Hunger Games films, and features the rise and transformation of a young Coriolanus Snow (played in the original films by Donald Sutherland, and Tom Blythe in this film). We see has Snow participates in the 10th annual Hunger Games tournament, and mentors a young competitor, Lucy Gray (Rachel Zegler).
Francis Lawrence directs this prequel after helming the last three Hunger Games films. His directing helps deliver a visual continuity with the world of Panem as well as executing the exciting action scenes we grew accustomed to in the previous films. However, his slow pace with the political scenes and personal struggles returns as well, and sadly waters down the intrigue and character arcs that are at the core of the story.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is the longest Hunger Games movie clocking at 2 hours and 37 minutes, and yet it feels like one of the most rushed as well. The prequel novel is the longest of any of the Hunger Games books, and as such would be challenging to adapt into a single film. Epic books have been adapted as singular movies before, just look at The Lord of the Rings trilogy, yet with the availability of TV series format, more books are choosing that path. Ballad would have been better suited to take on its slow burn format of showing Snow melding into the inevitable dictator instead of the rather messy and abrupt character arc he is given in the film.
The casting in Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is as strong as in the previous films, with supporting players Peter Dinklage and Viola Davis being particular highlights. The young stars work well enough, but are strapped by the rushed script and exposition-heavy dialogue. Blythe is tasked with being an audience surrogate as well as a convincing power-hungry villain, and he achieves it at an acceptable level. Zegler, meanwhile, takes on a singing-heavy role that she excels at, but her character is shallowly written, not permitting her to explore her much further. The two protagonists are also encircled into a romance that never quite convinces viewers and becomes central to Snow’s character journey.
In the end, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes works as an entertaining blockbuster, yet its fascinating story and deconstruction of its protagonist is muddled and rushed amongst the constraints of its format. The younger cast is bogged down by the clunky script, yet the Hunger Games action continues to be the most thrilling aspect of any of these movies.