THE HUNGER GAMES: THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS AND SNAKES Reviewed by GREG KING.
Director: Francis Lawrence
Stars: Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Viola Davis, Peter Dinklage, Hunter Schafer, Fionnula Flanagan, Burn Gorman, Ashley Liao, Max Raphael, Josh Andreas Rivera, Mackenzie Lansing, Jason Schwartzman, Athena Strates, Nick Benson, Ayomide Adegun, Luna Steeples.
It has been eight years since The Hunger Games film series ended with the two-part conclusion Mockingjay, and now we delve back into the popular YA dystopian fantasy series created by Suzanne Collins with this latest instalment. Collins gained inspiration for her concept of gladiatorial contests to provide entertainment for the impoverished masses in this post-apocalyptic society from films such as the violent Japanese drama Battle Royale and William Golding’s classic Lord Of The Flies, amongst other sources.
The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes is based on the 2020 novel written by Collins to further expand on the world she created with the original trilogy. Set some six decades before the events of the original trilogy, this film serves as both a prequel and an origin story for the character of Coriolanus Snow, who eventually became the authoritarian President of a post-apocalyptic Panem.
Tom Blyth (from mini-series Billy The Kid, etc) plays Coriolanus as an idealistic 18-year-old. His once powerful and wealthy family has fallen on hard times in the aftermath of the war, and he now lives with his grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) and his cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer) while he attends a privileged academy in the Capitol. As part of his graduation, he is assigned the task of mentoring a tribute during the upcoming 10th annual Hunger Games, the tournament of combat with its gladiators drawn from the 12 enslaved districts of Panem. People in Panem though seem to have grown tired of these brutal games that are televised as a distraction from the poverty that has wracked many of the districts, and creator and game designer Dr Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis) has urged tweaks to the game to restore interest and make them more entertaining.
Coriolanus proposes a sponsorship scheme to Gaul that allows Capitol viewers to donate to mentors so they can send tributes supplies during the Games. He is charged with mentoring Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler, from the recent remake of West Side Story, etc) from the impoverished District 12. But a romance develops between Snow and Lucy, whose superb singing voice enraptured the audiences during the traditional reaping ceremony, and he becomes determined to ensure she emerges victorious. After the Games have been played out Lucy is returned to her district, and Coriolanus decides to risk his future and follow her there as part of the peacekeeping army. He becomes caught up in the activities of the rebels.
Adapted from Collins’ novel by British playwright Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt (Oscar winner for Little Miss Sunshine, etc), this film is broken into three distinct chapters, and each one is tonally different. The first part is the more interesting as it concentrates on the Hunger Games themselves, the politics behind their creation, and the violence in the arena. The latter part plays out like a teenage melodramatic romance with Coriolanus and Lucy negotiating the difficult terrain after the Hunger Games.
The action of this film takes place while the Hunger Games are still in their infancy, before all the holograms and high-tech visuals, and here they are staged inside a decrepit stadium and are much more visceral, violent and gritty in nature. The games are broadcast to an audience mainly as a distraction from the hunger and the poverty that grip most of Panem’s outlying districts. As with the first film in the series, the glorification of violence and the pitting of adolescents against one another in a deadly competition for entertainment is again somewhat problematic. The televised games are hosted by the smarmy and sleazy tv weatherman and magician Lucretius Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman), who is the father of Stanley Tucci’s character from the original series.
Blyth gives us a different take of Snow, with his younger idealistic incarnation lacking the urbane sense of menace and self-righteousness that Sutherland brought to the character. Zegler brings a feisty quality and spark to her role as Lucy, but she lacks the gravitas and authority that Jennifer Lawrence brought to the series with her role as Katniss. Davis is almost unrecogniseable as the evil Gaul, but she chews the scenery, while Peter Dinklage brings a world-weary quality and a subtle hint of menace to his role as Casca Highbottom, the headmaster of the Academy and one of the original designers of the Hunger Games. Schawartzman brings an unctuous quality to his performance as the tv host with the glib one-liners.
Returning director Francis Lawrence helmed the last three films of the series, so he is familiar with the world of Panem and the games. His direction and staging of the games themselves is quite muscular and they are more visceral and violent in nature than those depicted in the original trilogy. Regular cinematographer Jo Willems does a superb job with the visuals and brings Panem to life, creating a stark contrast between the modern Capitol and the impoverished districts. Production values are also high with some great production design from Uli Hanisch, and distinctive costumes created by Trish Summerville.
However, the film doesn’t quite satisfactorily fill in the whole story of how the young Coriolanus eventually became the tyrannical President Snow, and the series probably needs another instalment, with maybe Keifer Sutherland playing an older version of the character as a bridge between this prequel and the original Hunger Games series.
A cynical attempt to reboot the franchise and play to the fanbase, The Hunger Games: The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes is over long with a generous running time of 157-minutes. The pacing is uneven and there are moments of unnecessary padding. While its YA demographic will probably enjoy what’s on offer here, those unfamiliar with the series will remain underwhelmed by it all.