After three novels in three years and four cinematic adaptations in four years, the Hunger Games series came to what felt like a definitive, definite conclusion. There was no more story to tell; the authoritarian rule of the Capitol ended by revolution, and the central character, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, in a star-making performance), had found a kind of peace in retirement as the embodiment of the rebellion. That left author Suzanne Collins — and with Collins, the distributor, Lionsgate — with only two directions to go, forward into an uncertain future or backward into a more certain, predetermined past.
Unsurprisingly, Collins selected the easier, more straightforward path, publishing a prequel, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, three years ago. The standalone novel unfolds more than six decades before a post-Civil War Panem, successor to the long-gone United States, and the rise of the Hunger Games central antagonist, villain, and president of Panem, Coriolanus Snow (played by Donald Sutherland in the original series). When we meet him again, Coriolanus (Tom Blyth), nicknamed “Corio” by his live-in cousin, Tigris (Hunter Schafer), hasn’t succumbed to the Dark Side or the equivalent yet. He’s a striver, an opportunist, constantly working every possible angle, anticipating moves and countermoves by both allies and potential foes alike, obsessively driven by the need to restore the Snow family’s tarnished name and advance his own career within the Capitol’s power structures.
Only eighteen when audiences are introduced to the golden-haired future president (initially head-scratching given Blyth’s actual age), Snow shows little sign of the hard-edged, autocrat audiences will encounter six decades later. He’s obsessed with his family’s fallen fortunes and the wealth, privilege, and status that Snow believes belong to him by right. He’s also spent every waking minute devoted to his studies, obtaining the highest possible academic marks. Not surprisingly, Snow expects to win the coveted Plinth Prize, a yearly award given to the top student in his class. It also comes with a monetary component that will, in time, elevate his family from poverty.
The best-laid plans of Snow and his cohorts, however, go sideways when the Capitol’s leaders, guided by the guilt-ridden creator of the Hunger Games, Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), and the head gamekeeper, Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis, in cackling, over-the-top mode), decide to revamp the rules, tying the Plinth Prize to each student’s mentorship of a district-provided tribute, usually an underfed, almost feral teen or preteen. Where others balk or hesitate, Snow, guided by the advice of Tigris and eventually Gaul, sees an opportunity both to keep his tribute alive, and raise his visibility, thus currying favour with the elite that will ultimately decide his fate.
So far, so Snow (apologies), but series veteran Francis Lawrence (Red Sparrow, I Am Legend), working from an adaptation penned by Michael Leslie (Thirteen Lives, Assassin’s Creed) and Michael Arndt (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Toy Story 3), turns Snow’s story inside out and upside down, converting his assigned tribute, District 12’s Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) into more than a means to a profitable, professional end, but into an intriguing, three-dimensional heroine. Eventually, of course, teen/twenty-something hormones change Snow’s calculus, potentially clouding his judgment, and overcoming his seemingly overwhelming instinct for self-preservation. Audiences, of course, know what path Snow chooses for himself and it doesn’t involve self-sacrifice, altruism, or compassion.
To its credit, the screenplay grapples with Snow and the choices, some small and others much larger in scope and thus, monumental in effect, he makes across its 157-minute running time. The striver in Snow sees the opportunity to cull favour with Gaul, suggesting changes to the Hunger Games that will, in time, turn into the spectacle of the not-so-distant future. The events will be eagerly viewed by the Capitol’s elite for base entertainment while the families and associated districts of the tributes watch in anguish and pain. The romantic in Snow sees something in Lucy Gray worth saving above and beyond his physical attraction to her or the singing voice that temporarily elevates her into a media star and celebrity.
It’s that on-again, off-again internal conflict in Snow, one again audiences know he’ll lose, that helps to give The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes forward narrative momentum. Centring a story not on an authoritarian autocrat, but on the how and why he became one adds moral complexity atypical for Hollywood studios more concerned with commerce (“Content”) than art (“film”). By their nature, comparisons tend to be broad or inexact, but Snow’s non-redemptive arc hews closer to Michael Corleone in The Godfather series than Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader in George Lucas’s Star War prequel trilogy.
In addition to its anti-war, anti-authoritarian, and anti-propaganda themes, the original series asked audiences to interrogate both the power of spectacle and its numbing, corrosive effects of watching children deliberately perish as mass entertainment. The critique then and now worked on two levels, as a critique of autocratic regimes and their use of televised spectacle as punishment for – and a warning against — resistance and rebellion, but also real-world viewers sitting on the other side of the screen who also took and continue to take pleasure in the spectacle of the Hunger Games.
The first, embedded critique still holds for the prequel, though the Panem we encounter in the opening and closing scenes hasn’t fully recovered from the Civil War. It purposely looks shabby and rundown, a decaying centre of power. The arena where the Hunger Games have been fought for a decade by district-sent tributes also lacks sophistication and novelty (both arrive later courtesy of Snow’s imagination). It looks like an ordinary multi-purpose arena, easily interchangeable with similar sporting spaces found in contemporary America.
That second, more provocative critique remains, but it’s been tempered, if not outright neutered, by time, changing audiences, and changing audience tastes, along with a deliberate decision to disregard or ignore whatever the Hunger Games series might say about real-world audiences who derive perverse pleasure from uncritically watching the bloodsport and mayhem on screen.
Ultimately, hitting the rewind button and revisiting the original series’s ideas and themes leads to diminishing dramatic and emotional returns, especially during the overlong, unwieldy third hour, but as a case study in authoritarian politics, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes remains as relevant today as it was fifteen years ago when the first novel was published.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes opens theatrically on Friday, November 17.