Synopsis: Coriolanus Snow mentors and develops feelings for the female District 12 tribute during the 10th Hunger Games.
Stars: Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Peter Dinklage, Hunter Schafer, Josh Andrés Rivera, Jason Schwartzman, Viola Davis
Director: Francis Lawrence
Running Length: 157 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: For movie audiences, The Hunger Games concluded eight years ago with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2. It was the second part of an epic finale to a series that, in four short years, had taken the box office by storm. These well-made, serious-minded films used their bleak dystopia to a skilled advantage, aided by emotionally charged performances by a top-notch cast of A-listers. Led by Jennifer Lawrence (who would win an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook between the first two films), the cast added new faces here and there but largely benefitted from the perfect casting in the original movie.
Of course, fans of the original trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins weren’t surprised to see the films take off like a rocket. Published between 2008-2010, these were books you could quickly devour in one or two sittings and read like a movie. I consumed them all in a week, far before the films arrived, before I could even imagine how a Hollywood studio would bring the brutal violence of Collins’s prose into PG-13 reality. Like their cinematic counterparts, the books did well with not glamorizing the atrocities surrounding the simple set-ups of The Hunger Games.
Ten years after Collins put down her pen, she returned to the world she created for a prequel, published in 2020 when the world was locked away for the pandemic. Not ideal for releasing a movie, but perfect for eyes craving a new book to crack open. The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is set 64 years before the first novel’s events and is centered around the 10th annual Hunger Games, an infamously vague year in the history of the battle royale.
Told in three parts from the perspective of Coriolanus Snow (who would grow up to become the nefarious President Snow we first met in the previous trilogy), a student in his final year of school and assigned along with other members of his class to mentor one of the district tributes, the novel followed along as his ambitions for a higher position in the Capitol become waylaid when he develops feelings for his mentee. Lucy Gray Baird may be “district,” but she exudes a magical aura that transfixes Snow and convinces him that love could conquer their social divide and usurp his dreams of prosperity and authority.
In the film version, returning director Francis Lawrence uses a faithful adaptation by playwright Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) to breathe life back into a world we had left behind. Now half a century earlier, many things are different in the Capitol, and the film moves at a brisk pace into the action of Snow (Tom Blyth, Benediction) first laying eyes on Lucy (Rachel Zegler, West Side Story) and making the decision to treat her as a human and not chattel for the arena. Often thwarted by classmates, school leadership (Peter Dinklage, She Came to Me, is fun as a conniving Dean out to melt Snow’s good fortune), an enigmatic game maker (Viola Davis, The Woman King), and other rebel forces working from their own agenda, Snow must use his cunning acumen to outplay his competitors and ensure Lucy’s survival. But when does cunning become conniving, and how long can Snow pull the wool over everyone’s eyes, even his own?
Like the book, the first two parts of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes moves at breakneck speed. Snow is charmed by Lucy and earns her trust, an unwavering loyalty that only gets muddy in an overstuffed third act. While Collins can work through a lot of plot via internal thought in this third part, the screenwriters can only do so much, and it’s up to Lawrence, Blyth, and Zegler to keep up with the necessary exposition. It’s nothing that devastates the film or its overall impact, but even if you hadn’t read the book, I think you’ll feel how frantic the action starts to feel by the finale.
In her second leading role after West Side Story, Zegler demonstrates again why she’s a bona fide star on the rise. True, the part of the soulful singing Lucy seems like it was written with her in mind, but beyond that, Zegler finds small moments throughout to show off a gift for diving into her emotional well. The voice is also warm, full-bodied, utterly different from what we heard her do as Maria in Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of the classic Broadway musical. Blyth makes a strong case for his take on the role as well. Playing a young Donald Sutherland and rather convincingly, it is often easy to forget that Snow isn’t the good guy in this (or any) Hunger Games movie. It’s told from his perspective, but that doesn’t make him the one to root for.
Going down the board, Lawrence has filled out his cast with talented faces, some we recognize and some just getting going. Zegler’s West Side Story co-star Josh Andrés Rivera has the perfect sensitive sincerity for Sejanus Plinth, a mentor that transplanted from the districts and feels conflicted about his role. Various young actors make up Snow’s class, and I wondered what a movie that focused on the early years of their schooling would be like. We can’t overlook Jason Schwartzman (Quiz Lady) or his creative work that isn’t just laying the groundwork for the indelible character Stanley Tucci created in the preceding films.
If we’re being honest, though, Davis walks away with the movie playing the sinister and kooky Dr. Volumnia Gaul. Davis is having the absolute time of her life here, sporting a wig that bounces when she walks and an ice-blue, all-seeing contact lens in one eye. Every line reading is dripping with a thick sugar syrup that can sting, and every stare she levels could freeze any of the Great Lakes before she had time to blink. Yet Davis never lets the role, the make-up, or the wacky costumes get in the way of her phenomenal acting of the part either. Take all those extra layers away; the role would be just as unnerving.
At almost two hours and forty-five minutes, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a big movie, and I’m glad the studio didn’t lose their minds and break this up into two parts. The film flies by and provides a satisfyingly epic amount of entertainment, one that fans of the novel (or the original series) will be pleased with. I’m not sure if Collins has more stories from this world left to tell, but if Lionsgate, Lawrence, or any of the actors involved so far want to volunteer their time again, I’d happily donate more time to this well-built arena.