Release Date: November 16, 2023
Katniss Everdeen was a much easier name to say than Coriolanus Snow or Persephone Price, Vipsania Sickle or, as the list continues, the many ridiculously named characters in The Hunter Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes. As I discovered, it appears being born in The Capital also means having tongue-twister names.
As viewers of the original four films, we all know that it doesn’t matter his name; Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), the man who would go on to become President Snow, is an evil, twisted villain whose drive to kill and Katniss and keep a hold on The Capital is what drove a rebellion to topple him over. This fifth film in the franchise, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, attempts to add some humanity to the man who would be President Snow. And all credit to Tom Blyth for nearly making it work.
It’s not just that the majority of the audience will know what and where Coriolanus’ future leads him; it’s also that in the film’s attempt to humanize him, they continually leave space for his underlying selfishness. He’s never a good person as much as the film or his cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafter, well-deserved more screen time) tell us. He’s career-driven, with every choice ultimately benefiting him in the long run.
Enter Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a rock-a-billy singer from District 12 whom Coriolanus is to mentor in the tenth Hunger Games. This is the first game to feature mentors, and it’s far from the mentoring we’re used to seeing in the films with past winners of the games. Coriolanus is told winning, or at least making his tribute a standout and helping draw in viewers for a dying Hunter Games television event, will garner his attention from those closer in The Capital and potentially win a gold pot directly to funding his future schooling and moving up within the political world of Panam. Lucy Gray sings, and Coriolanus wants to push on this to make her stand out. As he gets closer in the days leading up to the games, she looks to believe he’s out to help her, and he seems to be falling for her.
Even if I feel like on-page the characterization of Coriolanus is muddled for an attempt at humanizing a villain that didn’t need it, the world that The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins created within the books is on-show here once again with such intrigue. And with this prequel, the themes are boiled down to such glaring mirrors of our own culture. Instead of the flashy games, we see Katniss take place in years to come; the tenth games are set in a simple collision reminiscent of the Roman period. It is a stark reminder of how simple our own history’s fascination with bloodshed and violence for entertainment falls back. With multiple wars taking place around the world, with invasions and media used as weapons of displaying the violence for us to view in first-world countries as if the people are characters in a series, with people picking sides like it is a sports game. With no care for the victims, the moral ambiguity behind something like The Hunger Games films begins to hit harder.
For two acts, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a new and exciting look at the past of Panam and a period within The Hunger Games world where characters like Coriolanus Snow are just as struggling for food as Lucy Gray Baird. The dust from the war is barely settling, and The Hunger Games themselves are yet to become the spectacle they will be. But then, the third act of the film completely shifts the pacing towards a slower trip to District 12, where many of my issues with the writing of Coriolanus Snow only grow. Maybe the idea of splitting the film into two parts was shut down following the reception to Mockingjay, but if ever there was a transition into a film seemingly switching gears into a completely different film, it comes at about two hours into this one.
Viola Davis, who is sensational and eating up every scene she’s in, and a lively Jason Schwartzman are both prominent parts of the film’s first two acts but disappear when the transition out of The Capital happens. I don’t know what could have been if this wasn’t a sign to re-think the production plans for The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes.