Director Francis Lawrence tasked himself with a mammoth challenge: making the future tyrant leader of Panem, Coriolanus Snow, likeable and charming. We all know Snow as the old, malevolent President, but now, we get the opportunity to delve back into his past before he rises to power.
Based on the book by the same name from author Suzanne Collins, the Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes begins with Snow’s family in trying times in the post-war Capitol. Desperate to conceal their misfortune, and after the death of Snow’s father during the Dark Times, young Coriolanus (Tom Blyth) is his family’s last chance to set them on a pedestal in the Capitol society. A select few of high performing students have to mentor a tribute for the 10th annual Hunger Games. To Snow’s dismay, he has been appointed a female tribute, named Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), from the impoverished District 12, where contestants have a habit for perishing early on in the Games. He can feel his chances of saving his family slipping away as the most successful mentor is awarded a monetary prize, much to Snow’s liking. During the reaping ceremony, Lucy Gray shocks Panem by breaking out in song. When Snow realises she has a gift for singing, he capitalises on it, and whilst Lucy Gray is reluctant to play ball, she recognises that becoming a spectacle through performing is her only chance for survival. The film is set out into three sections, throughout which a romance begins to brew between the mentor and mentee.
This has been long anticipated by fans of the series, as the last instalment of this franchise was back in 2015! The book was published during the first UK COVID-19 lockdown in 2020; it provided much-needed escapism, and fans were hoping for that to be replicated in the film. Similar to the trilogy series, the cinematic adaptation stays true to the book throughout, only altered slightly in some areas, such as Clemensia’s absence in the film to enable more screen time to be dedicated to the two protagonists: Coriolanus and Lucy Gray. To ensure Collins’ ideas and themes around power, privilege, and loss of innocence are conveyed in the way she envisioned, the producers worked closely with her.
The book was published during the first UK COVID-19 lockdown in 2020; it provided much needed escapism, and fans were hoping for that to be replicated in the film.
This plot takes place 64 years prior to the trilogy, where Katniss Evergreen flips the world of Panem on its head, but it still has the dystopian outlook that we are familiar with. As with most dystopian films, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes depicts a harrowing, hard-hitting, and horrid view of how the world is run, yet it still offers that sense of escapism for audiences.
Upon arriving at the screening on the film’s release day on 17th November, the energy in the atmosphere was tangible. Hunger Games fans and casual cinemagoers alike all seemed ecstatic to be there, knowing the long wait was over. What’s remarkable about viewing films on release days isn’t just the packed-out cinema room or the abundance of snacks people bundle into their bags, it’s the clear excitement people display. They have ensured they are one of the first viewers simply because they are keen to see the next film or are eager to engage with discussions after the film as been watched. This enhanced engagement with the film texts makes for a more interactive and enjoyable watch. The loud and bustling discussions quietened down once the lights dimmed and silence fell as the anticipation built. It was noticeable that the overall demographic was young people, which isn’t surprising as it is based off a young adult fiction novel, but there was also a fair mix of male and female spectators, so perhaps showing that this franchise doesn’t have a gendered approach, that it is truly enjoyed by everyone. Well thought-out filmmaking proved effective when the entire audience leaped back during an unexpected jump scare. Even just the simplest of ambient sounds being heightened made everyone reel up with tension, proving we were always kept immersed within the narrative. Many have been critical of the sheer brutality implied on screen, with particular unrest due to the tributes being children, but this is the disturbing nature of the dystopian genre, and as it appeared in the book, it shouldn’t be surprising that it will be reflected on screen – this indicates how powerful audio-visual media is in presenting the shocking in a more life-like and relatable way. However, to provide a respite from constant violence and terror, moments of comedy had the cinema in fits of laughter from the quirky and out of place (but in a good way!) sarcastic one-liners provided by the Hunger Games’ commentator: Lucky Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman). This gave a nice break from all the seriousness that the film commands, and laughing alongside strangers in a cinema brings a collective vibe to the experience.
As with most dystopian films, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes depicts a harrowing, hard-hitting, and horrid view of how the world is run, yet it still offers that sense of escapism for audiences.
Now, the film itself had a lot to live up to in the wake of an insanely successful franchise. We all loathed Snow, yet in this film, we are encouraged to stand by him and understand every move he makes. The director wanted us to engage so much with his storyline that we feel compelled to actually root for him. The film had a runtime of almost 3 hours, but I felt constantly on the edge and nervous, as I knew what was to become of Snow – I was just waiting for the moment he snaps. Prequels around villain tropes are of course the perfect opportunity to provide context as to why the villains have become the way they are – but this must be done right. The film was successful in adapting the book to the big screen, and it being done in an engaging way meant the film was received well, but it did fall short on some prominent accounts.
We all loathed Snow, yet in this film, we are encouraged to stand by him and understand every move he makes.
The film almost came across as too clingy to the original text in that it compromised how it came across on screen – reading a story and watching a story have to be considered separately. This seemed like a visualisation of skim-reading the book, as the character development of both Coriolanus and Lucy Gray felt slightly rushed. It seemed we were just scratching the surface of both of them. Lucy Gray didn’t really have a backstory for us to appreciate, and although her enchanting singing drew us in (which was all filmed live on set by the way!), there wasn’t that close connection to her; she always felt slightly detached. She was very much just chucked into the Games. I was pleasantly surprised to be teased with connections to the trilogy from Lucy Gray, such as her rendition of ‘The Hanging Tree’ song. The love story and Lucy Gray’s part in Coriolanus’ life was the one bit of light in a dark world, so it was a shame that much of her story was left out.
Snow’s backstory was, in contrast, detailed well to hammer home the consequences if he doesn’t win the money from the Plinth Prize. But it was, however, clumsily set up: he is a different villain-to-be than what we are conventionally used to, in that he is more cool, calm, and collected. He needs this personality to be successful and sometimes audiences have failed to understand that this is imperative to his survival and authenticity. But the problem lies when we have reached the third act, named The Peacekeeper, where we finally get a glimpse of the dictator he is going to transform into, yet the film has run out of time to explore this further. It seemed paramount to focus more time on the Games, but that fell to the detriment of a lack of character development.
Some have commented that perhaps the prequel would have benefited from being split in two, especially as the book was over 500 pages long! This would facilitate more character development and foster a deeper connection between the audience and the protagonists as a result.
My feelings, and the general atmosphere after the screening from others, was positive – I felt like I had been on an adventure myself and I left the cinema smiling. It was, of course, difficult material to watch, but seeing how love can change a person’s character and mindset is a powerful thing to witness. Yet I wish it was done in more depth.