It takes quite a while to get there, but the long awaited prequel The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes arrives at an interesting place. The road to get there, however, is a familiar one without much novelty, drama, or excitement. For two-thirds of this adaptation of author Suzanne Collins’ bestselling young adult novel, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes feels like a lot more of the same, and once it arrives at something fresh and different, the developments are such a massive tonal shift that it’s like a different movie altogether has suddenly started out of nowhere. A lot of this might have to do with what the novel was trying to accomplish, but on screen it comes across like too much is being stuffed into a single film. In an era where people complain about blockbusters being broken up into multiple instalments in a bid to get more cash from the audience, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes almost begs to be given more than its nearly three hour running time.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is in an alternative vision of the future set sixty-four years before the original trilogy of books and during the tenth annual Hunger Games ceremonies. By this point in the history of Panem, worry is starting to settle in amongst those in charge – led by game designer and master Dr. Volumina Gaul (Viola Davis) – that citizens of the impoverished districts aren’t tuning into the bloody yearly culling ceremonies. To switch things up, high ranking students from The Capitol are selected by drug addled and cynical Dean Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage) to pair up with this year’s selected “tributes” and teach them how to survive, but more importantly, how they can connect with viewers on an emotional level. Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), who in future decades will become Panem’s leader, lives on the outskirts of his wealthy society with his fashion design minded sister (Hunter Schafer) and Grandma’am (Fionnula Flanagan), and is particularly hated by Highbottom. Coriolanus is given one of the students’ tougher assignments: mentoring Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), the female tribute from mining country, District 12. Lucy Gray comes from a family of musicians, so she’s not much of a fighter, but what she lacks in power she more than makes up for in heart, survival instinct, and most importantly for these heavily televised games, charisma. Coriolanus watches Lucy Gray blossom as tensions rise throughout Panem, and he begins to develop feelings for her.
Returning franchise director Francis Lawrence – who has helmed all but the first film in the series – offers up a lot more of the same for The Hunger Games: The Battle of Songbirds and Snakes for the first two hours. There’s definitely a “back to basics” appearance both visually and within the screenplay from Michael Lesslie (Assassins Creed) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3, and the second Hunger Games film, Catching Fire). The tributes arrive at The Capitol with a bunch of pomp and circumstance. They get put under a microscope and trotted out for the world to see, They learn that the games are equal parts mental, physical, and political in nature. They train. Their handlers fret about their chances. Then the games begin and the bloody melee for survival ensues.
Even though The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes place before the original trilogy that filmgoers are familiar with, a lot of the production design concepts, costumes, and ideas here are similar to everything that has come before. The only real difference is that the arena where the games transpire is minuscule in comparison to what’s ahead, a decision that only makes the film even less visually appealing. Other than that, Lawrence’s film moves and acts like just another Hunger Games movie, albeit with many more intervals of people singing folk songs and a greater reliance on sometimes dodgy looking CGI.
While some might appreciate another teenage battle Royale, there’s something decidedly uninspired about this prequel outside of a slight rush of panicked excitement once the tributes enter the arena. While there are interesting characters to be found around the periphery of the games – Dinklage’s curmudgeonly dean, a mentor (played by Josh Andres Rivera) who used to live in one of The Districts but wants to take the games down from the inside to stick it to his rich and influential father – the main, budding relationship between Coriolanus and Lucy Gray (who has to be referred to by first and middle names at all times for some reason) is rather ho-hum. Blyth is quite good at hitting the bits of tragic foreshadowng that colour his character, and Zegler can credibly look like a down home folk singer, but they have a minimal amount of chemistry together, and both are lacking in charisma. They look like part of this universe, but more like background characters in a bigger picture. Zegler’s performance suffers in particular because nothing ever seems inspiring or heroic about her throughout, but then again, there’s only so much any actor can do with some of the dialogue she has been given (“Mama used to bathe me in buttermilk and rose petals.”).
So when it’s time for the games to begin – hosted by an obnoxious television personality and magician, played by Jason Schwartzman, who has cornered the market this month on smarmy cogs in the game show machine between this and Quiz Lady – they just feel like a foregone conclusion. The viewer knows how these things go, and anyone familiar with the series to this point, or those who’ve read the book, know precisely how they are going to turn out. Some of the other “contestants” seem like interesting people (a kid that’s literally dying of tuberculosis, another with rabies from a bat bite, a bruiser literally named Reaper, a child with obvious disabilities), but there’s not much sense spending more time than necessary on them. Instead of a thrilling game of survival, these games are a slog to get through.
And yet, there has already been a fair amount of criticism and disdain from those in the film world directed towards the final, lengthy act of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, which depicts everything that happened after the tenth annual ceremonies and the fallout from Coriolanus’ actions to aid Lucy Gray along her way. I’ll happily state that I have the reverse opinion of this extensive final act because it feels different from the other games in the series. The intrigue that colours the final chapters of the film has been nicely set-up in the previous portion of the film, and it actually answers a lot of questions that the writers and director didn’t have space to address earlier. Yes, it feels like a different movie starting up after things have reached a logical end point (which is why it might’ve been a better idea to split this story up into multiple volumes), but that deviation from the norm is quite enriching and dramatically satisfying.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a lot to sit through for a minimal amount of payoff and backstory to a franchise that has seemingly run its full course by now, but fans will likely enjoy enough bits and pieces of this. It’s a film about planting seeds for things viewers have already seen and known, so that automatically puts the story itself at a natural deficit. But it never finds a credible way to turn that deficit into an unlikely advantage, instead offering up the same things it did before to diminished returns. It’s not a bad movie, just a really bland one until it makes the too-little-too-late decision to try something different.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, November 17, 2023.
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