At long last, audiences are returning to the world of Panem and the Hunger Games! Directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Peter Dinklage, and Viola Davis, the prequel film follows future president Coriolanus Snow as he mentors Lucy Gray Baird, the female tribute from District 12, in the 10th Annual Hunger Games. An emotionally complex film anchored by stellar performances, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a faithful adaptation of the novel by Suzanne Collins despite lacking its true thematic depth.
The origin of the Hunger Games
Set 64 years before Katniss Everdeen steps foot into the arena, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes explores how The Hunger Games became the reality television sensation we know them to be. Familiar elements like sponsorships and interviews are introduced, while everything from the way tributes are treated, to the arena itself, are rudimentary and a far cry from the polished opulence of years to come. The production design and costumes in the film bring this war-torn Capitol to life in an unbelievably perfect way.
While I’ve already examined how familiar elements of this prequel only enrich the original story, the Games themselves stood out the most on film. This story is told from a Capitol perspective, which understandably makes the arena scenes feel impersonal in the novel. However, the film shines a spotlight on the tributes and their battles.
The Hunger Games have never been as brutal as they are in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Stripped of their expensive production value, the horror of the Games is truly seen for the first time. Children are savagely murdered in an unflinchingly violent manner, surprisingly staying true to the novel as much as possible despite the film’s PG-13 rating.
The tributes in these Games are brought to the forefront, allowing audiences in both real life and the Capitol to see them as real people. As a result, the fights and deaths feel much more personal and heart-wrenching than the deaths of nameless tributes in the original Hunger Games films.
The Hunger Games’ thematic resonance
The meaning behind the Hunger Games and their true purpose is a frequent topic addressed in the film, although without the depth of its source material. While changes are necessary in any book-to-movie adaptation, I’ve always felt that most Hunger Games film changes do not diminish the themes of the novels. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly the case here.
In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, small changes muddy the emotional impact of themes integral to the film’s identity. Certain plot developments are shifted in a way that removes agency and intelligence from multiple women, making Coriolanus appear unnecessarily smarter than them.
Despite being relatively minor, these changes deeply impact key moments of character development negatively. As a result, the film’s themes never sink in as deeply as the novel’s. While the thematic loss is expected to some degree, minor changes combined with not exploring their consequences diminish the meaning of scenes that are key to the story being told.
This loss is crystal clear in the arena’s most dramatic scene. While mutant snakes become a tool Lucy Gray uses to her advantage in the book, in the film they are merely an obstacle serving a purpose incongruent with their creator’s stated beliefs. Meanwhile, the baffling loss of two key songs present in the original Hunger Games trilogy (one absent entirely, one’s iconic performance cut out) erase subtle character moments that should have strengthened central relationships.
Divided into three distinct parts (standard amongst the novels, unique to this film), the pacing becomes slightly awkward as well. While the aggressively clear three-act structure was a wonderful surprise and does elevate the film, it also highlights the rushed opening scenes and the beginning of the third act. The second act of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is excellently paced and perfectly realized, but glossed-over introductions limit the emotional impact of entering and leaving certain settings.
Character motivations in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
The characters in this film are beautifully developed and stand out thanks to stellar performances across the board. Rachel Zegler lights up the screen as Lucy Gray during her passionate musical performances, while Tom Blyth brings depth to every one of Coriolanus Snow’s expressions.
Fans may have a bone to pick with how these characters’ personalities differ in this film adaptation. Sympathetic and manipulative characteristics are increased and decreased across the board, cheapening some emotional impact. However, both characters are still adapted strongly and bring enough of the emotion the climax requires.
Unfortunately, Lucy Gray’s home life is almost entirely absent with little attention paid to the Covey and their relationships with each other. Coriolanus’ home life is better realized, with his dead father looming heavily over the choices he makes.
Hunter Schafer delivers some excellent lines as Tigris Snow, with the film delving very slightly deeper into the rift that will eventually form between the close cousins (Tigris was instrumental in Snow’s downfall in Mockingjay). Josh Andrés Rivera is perfectly cast as Sejanus Plinth, capturing his empathy despite being shortchanged by (minor) changes in the third act.
Peter Dinklage’s presence is always welcome, but several of Dean Highbottom’s lines are poorly written and delivered. Viola Davis shines as the villainous Dr. Volumnia Gaul, reveling in the character’s unhinged kookiness. But the standout is Jason Schwartzman as Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman, the first-ever host of The Hunger Games, whose hilarious dialogue consistently received big laughs in my screening.
How does The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes compare to the original Hunger Games?
I think the Hunger Games films are the best book-to-movie adaptations I’ve ever seen, never sacrificing the themes Suzanne Collins so brilliantly explores in her writing. In general, I think the films’ additions (like President Snow’s scenes in the first movie) only enhance the stories being told. Most of the subtractions don’t greatly impact the themes, but minor changes are what mess with the depth found in the novels. An excellent example of this is the generic dog-like mutts in the first Hunger Games movie, compared to the book’s wolf-like creatures with human eyes designed to be horrific spitting images of the deceased tributes.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes novel is perhaps the most layered and complex examination of human nature, war, and manipulation in the entire Hunger Games series. While the film does examine these topics, it shortchanges them in the same breath. The main beats are executed beautifully, but it’s the subtle moments that prevent the film from achieving perfection. As a diehard book lover myself, it simply feels like film audiences aren’t getting the entire picture, and for seemingly no reason. Don’t let that deter you from seeing the film, though – just make sure you go home and read the novel afterwards!
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is an impressive adaptation that sacrifices true thematic depth for little reason. Audiences will undoubtedly love returning to Panem and those who have not read the novel will be quite surprised at how the story develops. However, book lovers won’t find another Catching Fire here – instead, Songbirds and Snakes is more like Mockingjay – Part 2.
My rating for this film:
★★★★/ ♥♥♥♥ 1/2
It’s not a mediocre film by any means, in fact, Songbirds and Snakes is still an excellent movie with a strong emotional core. Among the Hunger Games films, this one ranks highly with genuinely shocking developments and heart-pounding moments. But while some changes are necessary to create a good film adaptation, unnecessary ones will leave audiences with a simpler view of Coriolanus Snow and Lucy Gray Baird’s love story than Suzanne Collins intended.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes releases in theaters on November 17, 2023! Are you excited to revisit the world and story of The Hunger Games soon? Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord.