Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Written by: Michael Lesslie, Michael Arndt
Starring: Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Peter Dinklage, Hunter Schafer, Jason Schwartzman, Viola Davis
Released: November 16, 2023
Grade: B+

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes

Considering the first movie/book in the franchise was centred on the 74th instalment of the Hunger Games, there’s close to a century of (fictitious) material to draw upon in crafting a prequel.  The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, adapted from author Suzanne Collins’ 2020 novel, takes us back to the 10th Hunger Games – a time when the public’s interest in the barbaric event was flailing and gamemaker Volumnia Gaul (Davis) was low on ideas.

As a quick refresher for those who missed the four earlier movies, the setting is a dystopian world where residences in the wealthy capitol, Panem, live lavishly while those in the 12 poorer districts live miserly.  To help suppress chances of an uprising, the tyrannical leaders in Panem organise an annual, televised spectacle where two unwilling teenagers are picked from each district, and they fight to the death in a craftily designed arena.

I love this film’s core concept.  In the same vein as Revenge of the Sith and Joker, it’s an origin story about a villain.  As the folk who want to upend/destroy society, their backstories in action films are often more intriguing than the screen-hogging heroes.  The central character of The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is Coriolanus Snow.  We know he grows up to be Panem’s oppressive ruler (played by Donald Sutherland in the earlier flicks) but here, he’s a smart, kind, popular, fresh-faced 18-year-old high school graduate.  He is played by newcomer Tom Blyth (Billy the Kid) in a likeable performance (even if he does spend a lot of time looking at TV screens).

Clocking in at a sizeable 157 minutes, this outing from director Francis Lawrence (he made the last three movies) is split into three parts – an introduction to the characters, the running of the 10th Hunger Games, and the complex aftermath.  Coriolanus isn’t a competitor but rather, he’s been instructed to mentor a feisty girl chosen from District 12 (Zegler) and help increase her popularity and chances of victory.  Coriolanus isn’t overly keen about the task but there’s an upside – he can impress the Panem bigwigs and earn a prestigious college scholarship referred to as the Plinth Prize.

The film held my attention but there are times, particularly in the third act, where execution can’t match ambition.  We see a subtle transformation in Coriolanus but there isn’t enough time to credibly interrogate the reasons why.  The last 15 minutes is particularly rushed!  This problem could have been avoided if the lengthy Hunger Games scenes in the middle were shortened (they’re not that exciting given we don’t care about most entrants) but, I understand that may have irked those looking for the franchise’s trademark – dark, creative battles.

My thumbs are still up though.  From its detailed costumes and sets to the strength of its leading performances, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is an entertaining prequel which doesn’t come across as a mere cash-grab.  It has an interesting story to tell.