While The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is unlikely to be a movie anybody will watch repeatedly, it just might be a movie that you watch once, that sticks with you for a lifetime.
Given current world events, particularly those involving the recent spike in violence between Israel and Palestine, this movie is more important than ever. It is not merely a teen romance, as some have suggested. Instead, it is an intricate examination of an oppressive system and those who live within it: both the oppressors and the oppressed.
While many audiences like simple stories, with a clear good guy and a clear bad guy, this villain origin story refuses to depict Coriolanus Snow as either fundamentally good or evil. The audience can understand where he’s coming from, while still being revolted by his actions.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is broken into three key parts: The Mentor, The Prize, and The Peacekeeper. Each section follows Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) as he tries to determine his path in life, always complicated by District 12 tribute Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler).
The future president of Panem starts as a young man who has a powerful name but no money, trying to earn a position in the government that will provide for his cousin and grandmother. Because his father was killed by district rebels, he lives in an uncomfortable place of being looked down upon by his fellow Capitol youth while simultaneously hating the people of the districts.
When the position he expected to earn is snatched back, Coryo becomes a mentor in the Hunger Games, tasked with making his tribute a sensation or losing the future he fought so hard for. Over the course of the movie, he wrestles with his need for Lucy Gray to succeed for his own success and the genuine moral and emotional crises prompted by the world he lives in.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes honors its origins and far surpasses them
Prequels are difficult, because audiences already know where they’re going to end. Coriolanus Snow will become President of Panem, and the Hunger Games will become a media sensation. In order to stay interesting, a prequel must make audiences care about how that came to be.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes does just that, showing why Snow wants power and the betrayals he faced getting there. Though he is a fundamentally selfish character, his desire to make a better life for himself and his family is completely understandable.
The film suggests that the Hunger Games may not continue if nothing changes, a consequence fans already know didn’t happen. But the details about how different elements of the games (interviews, tribute gifts, complex landscapes) were created and why are interesting. Particularly because so much of it came from rebellion and the desire to connect to others.
While some of the nods are a little much (the mention that it’s too early for Katniss, for instance), The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes does a great job adding to the lore around Panem. Audiences get to see how a war-torn society became the pure spectacle they were first introduced to in The Hunger Games, and it actually seems terrifyingly plausible for our own world.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes asks what innocence really is and who has it
It became trendy to play with the idea of gray morality, where nobody is truly innocent, during the rise of dystopian literature in the early 2010s. However, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes presents the other side to that coin: that everybody is an innocent.
When the Capitol citizens die, it’s horrifying. When the tributes die, it’s horrifying. And in both cases, the film proves why each side would want to retaliate and how they would be justified in doing so.
The only character that doesn’t seem sympathetic in the slightest is Dr. Volumnia Gaul, played delightfully by Viola Davis. She serves as the personification of both the mad scientist and the totalitarian regime itself. Cunning and apathetic toward human life, Gaul will do whatever it takes to keep the Games going.
Because of this, Gaul is painted as truly irredeemable. But nobody else is. They may fight for survival or betray others for their own advancement, but there is always a hope that they will change their minds. Even if only for a moment, the characters all have times when they see the tributes as human beings, and they are willing to break the rules to help them.
The film is merciless and brutal—but always for a purpose
The general rule when it comes to excessively long movies is that they will either be amazing or very bad, depending on whether the extended run-time is necessary. In the case of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, it absolutely is.
This is one of the cases where the medium absolutely supplements the message, as the exhausting nature of death after death, crisis after crisis, gives the audience the opportunity to experience Panem as its citizens do. There is rarely time to stop and think through what has happened.
Despite the furious pace, each moment of violence allows the audience to acknowledge two things: the cruelty of the system and the kindness of its victims. No matter who directly killed who, all violence can be attributed to a government that trained its wealthiest citizens to see its poorest as animals. Yet each death also provided a chance for humanity to break through.
This can be seen through the repeated attempts to honor the dead throughout the movie. Tributes risked their lives to honor their fallen competitors. Capitol citizens demanded that the Game makers follow their own rules. In each case, seeing the humanity of the victims led others to fight back.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is full of rebellion, small and large, against the oppressive government. However, the government adapts to the people’s protests, adding extra support to the system. Lucy Gray’s songs become sensationalism, not condemnation. Coriolanus’s gambit to save her becomes the hero-ification of the victor.
Violence begets sympathy, humanity. Likewise, the government weaponizes humanity as a new kind of violence. This movie demonstrates the cause and effect perfectly, illustrating in a fictional setting how real-world totalitarianism works.
Verdict: “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is harder to watch than some horror movies—but it uses every moment to demonstrate its argument about the roles of sympathy and punishment in oppressive settings.” 5/5
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is in theaters now.