The citizens of Panem have returned to the big screen in “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.” Adapted from Suzanne Collins’s 2020 prequel novel to “The Hunger Games” trilogy, the latest installment of the movie franchise was released Nov. 17 and has led in North American box office sales since its premiere. The movie explores the early days of the Games and the rise of the infamous Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) before he became president of Panem. The impressive cast also features Viola Davis as Head Gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul, Peter Dinklage as the Games’ inventor Casca Highbottom and Hunter Schafer as Snow’s cousin Tigris. The plot aims to uncover how and why the Hunger Games are the way they are but achieves much more in the process: It offers a striking commentary on the preservation and deterioration of morality and the desperation that drives human nature.
“The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is a lengthy two-and-a-half hours long, yet the film successfully holds the audience’s attention throughout. The story is divided into three parts: “The Mentor,” “The Prize” and “The Peacekeeper.” At the beginning of the film, viewers get a deeper glimpse into Snow’s formative years. Bright and charming, Snow is recognized by his professors and peers as one of the best students in the Academy, the Capitol’s most elite educational institution. He dreams of attending university after graduation but, despite the outward facade of wealth he attempts to display to his fellow classmates, he and his family are penniless and unable to pay the tuition on their own. His only hope is to win the Plinth Prize, a hefty scholarship awarded to the Academy’s most deserving pupil.
But this year, winning the Plinth Prize is not as simple as achieving the best grades. Because support for the Games has dwindled over the past 10 years, those in the Capitol have decided to establish a mentorship program connecting the Academy students with tributes, and the mentor who does the best job transforming their tribute into a star is promised the Plinth Prize.
Much to Snow’s dismay, he is assigned Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) from District 12, which is historically the least successful in the Games. Baird’s quirky attitude and odd penchant for singing make her stand out amongst the stronger, colder tributes. A performer at heart, Baird’s voice and sincerity prove to be an indispensable tool not only for winning over the Capitol crowds but also for aiding her survival.
The second two parts follow Snow’s struggle to protect Baird in the Games and the aftermath of his efforts. Though the Games anchor the plot, the movie hones in more on the Capitol’s decisions behind the scenes and Snow’s character development. The decision to shift the focus of the film offers a fresh perspective from the previous four movies and prevents this latest installment from being redundant.
Without beloved main characters like Katniss Everdeen or Peeta Mellark, fans were uncertain that the film would hit the mark. But despite the absence of these iconic characters, audiences are sure to still be captivated by this film’s central characters, particularly Blyth’s noteworthy portrayal of Snow. Throughout the movie, his ability to capture the duality of Snow’s conniving yet compassionate nature is intriguing. Blyth’s skills truly shine in the third part, where he offers a stunning performance of his character unraveling into the evilness that fans have seen in President Snow from the earlier movies.
Zegler’s embodiment of Baird’s eccentric nature is also entertaining, but it is her vocal talent that shines the most in the film. One of the riskiest moves, though it is also in the book, is the incorporation of singing throughout the film. But what could have turned the film into a corny dystopian musical ends up becoming a powerful aspect of the film. The songs elevate the impact of each scene and become one of the most memorable parts of the film when supported by Zegler’s astonishing voice.
“The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” certainly had high standards to live up to — in 2021, the series was one of the highest-grossing franchises of all time. But by employing subtle parallels to scenes in the earlier films and maintaining the originals’ aesthetics, the movie preserves the quality of the others, making it a successful addition to “The Hunger Games” universe.
Daphne is an Arts & Culture writer from Austin, Texas. She is planning on studying International and Public Affairs. Her passions include cats, running and Phoebe Bridgers.