Back in 2012, the release of The Hunger Games became a cultural phenomenon, and practically opened the floodgates to the young adult dystopian book adaptation craze, to mixed results. However, many of these films received negative to mixed reviews. But The Hunger Games franchise knew how to secure its quality, with a great sequel and satisfying ending, even if Mockingjay Part 2 was the weakest of the films. But several years later, the prequel to this beloved franchise gets the big screen treatment, not focusing on a heroine, but the villain and his monstrous rise to power.
Coriolanus Snow (played by Tom Blyth) is a high ranking student at the Capitol Academy, who’s about to graduate with a big scholarship to help restore his family’s former status. However at the last minute Hunger Games mastermind, Dean Casca Highbottom (played by Peter Dinklage) changes the rules to whichever student can mentor that year’s winning tribute would win the scholarship. Snow is paired with District 12 outsider Lucy Gray Baird (played by Rachel Zegler). With their backs against the wall, Snow and Lucy Gray must find a way to work together if they are gonna survive the Hunger Games slaughter and high society.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting to ever return to the world of Panem or The Hunger Games, ever since it ended back in 2015. But the world building is done to a much better degree here than any of the previous films, as we see a completely different side of Panem, one that’s completely broken and scattered compared to the iron grip of order and luxury the Capitol had in the first 2 films. It led to more predatory, ruthless games than any of the later games had, with less showmanship than the 74th Hunger Games and more brutality. But the production design as well, it knew when to look futuristic and post apocalyptic. As the arena was a stellar mix of both future and past. Along with Gaul’s laboratory being a prime example of how far in the future their society is.
With the worlding building came a great story as well, considering the time of the 10th Hunger Games came at the time when the civil war was still fresh in everyone’s minds. It really showed how much the violence, even to kids who had nothing to do with the war, took a toll on their humanity at times. Additionally, it also projected its themes of rebellion and power amicably, knowing when one would take center stage. Several tributes are given a to moment shine with their acts of rebellion, such as Reaper tearing down the Capitol flag and shrouding the dead tributes or any time Lucy Gray begins to sing. Any time Baird sings, it truly feels like a rebellious act, especially when she gives a dead stare into the camera! It also led to a somewhat ambiguous ending that will frustrate as much as it will satisfy.
Thank goodness the performances are fantastic in the film. Rachel Zegler, who has starred in two blockbusters already with West Side Story and Shazam! Fury of the Gods and now The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. She delivers a beautiful performance as Lucy Gray Baird, bringing to life the performer’s attitude without disregarding her humanity, even when the Games start. She also is phenomenal at reading people, being that she was able to see through many of Snow’s lies. Dinklage again shows his range as a broken addict who is doomed to be praised for his worst idea, acting as Panem’s version of Robert J. Oppenheimer in a way. I don’t know who keeps deciding to cast Viola Davis as evil characters, but they deserve a raise. Davis portrays Gaul with an evil that is far more diabolical than any Devil we may know. Gleaming with pride at her work with the Games, and basking in the bloodshed as she creates more heinous ways for kids to kill each other. Then there is Tom Blythe as Snow, Blythe managed to create Snow’s trademark charisma and make him a character we desperately hate to love. Showing his humanity and love but also how his inability to let go of power as he breaks bad in the end, paving the way for the monster we would come to despise.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a prequel that is honestly better than most of the original quadrilogy. Despite receiving a 66% on rotten tomatoes (at the time of publishing) it is far better than anyone can imagine. With stellar world building and a new look at Panem then we’ve had previously. Not to mention the story is far more intricate than any of the original trilogy, despite having a somewhat frustrating ending but it does leave a satisfying taste in your mouth. The acting is otherworldly, in particular Tom Blyth as Coriolanus Snow, Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird, and Viola Davis as the vile Dr. Gaul. Completely submerging itself with its themes of rebellion and power, this Ballad will not end until the Mockingjay sings!