The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes review.

By Claudia Bradley

“It’s the things we love most that destroy us,” tends to be the quote fans of The Hunger Games think of when recalling President Snow. In the original quartet of films, based on the novels by Suzanne Collins and focusing on the consequences of war, it seems plain he was speaking about Katniss’ love for Peeta. It may never have occurred to audiences he might have been talking about a past love of his own.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is the story of President Snow’s youth, tying his rise to prominence with the evolution of the Hunger Games from the base survival contests to the weeks-long, highly celebrated entertainment they became. Suzanne Collins’ novel of the same name was released in May 2020, five years after the conclusion to Katniss Everdeen’s story, and sixty-four years before her journey started. Now, it’s the #1 movie in the world. 

The striking story follows an eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow, expertly played by Tom Blythe, as his remaining family struggles in poverty after the last war to wrack the country. His new assignment for the Academy he attends in the Capitol— success with which could win him an enormous pot of money—is to make the Hunger Games more entertaining to audiences. Snow and his fellow students must each mentor one of the chosen children, and whoever gets the District 12 girl is predicted the worst luck of the draw. 

Tom Blythe achieves the complexity of Coriolanus’ character with minute gestures that contradict everything he says. Coriolanus presents himself as rich in money and status, but his fridge at home is bare and his cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer) made his shirt out of anything she could scavenge. He insults a classmate behind his back, then befriends him. He is determined to uphold the legacy of his imperial father: “Snow lands on top.” He is the definition of an underdog, which he famously disliked in The Hunger Games, along with his tribute: the girl from District 12. 

Rachel Zeigler embodies Lucy Gray Baird, uniquely performing all songs live on set and ad-libbing the infamous bow from Jennifer Lawrence in the original films. She immediately avenges her arranged misfortune and demonstrates her connection with snakes, which later became synonymous with the president and his use of poison. She is the link to the original stories; the unknown writer of ballads Katniss sung to ignite the rebellion. At the same time, she dances proudly through her own story. Coriolanus grows to love Lucy Gray while he feels he can control her, and, when she attempts to find freedom, he becomes desperate and unhinged. Katniss Everdeen eventually personifies everything Snow grew to hate, from the song Lucy Gray wrote about his deeds to the mockingjays that harmonise with her, symbolising freedom from the Capitol. 

With The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes being split into three parts, there was arguably too much to cover in the two hours and forty minutes but not quite enough for two films. This story explored the act of choice and how such choices can define a character. Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera), the singularly sympathetic mentor and a son of a wealthy man, represents everything Coriolanus had the opportunity to be and resisted. Coriolanus’ response to Sejanus’ private revolt was perhaps the turning point on his journey from young Coriolanus to ‘future president’ Snow. Through the distorted reflection of these two characters, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes gives a riveting look into the instincts of humanity at its core. Are we animals motivated by survival, or compassion?

Dr Gaul, the Head Gamemaker played wickedly by a cackling Viola Davis, orchestrates the Games to demonstrate the former, much to the dismay of their unwitting creator Dean Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), who invokes a surprising sympathy. In the face of this, many tributes continue to rebel against the force of the Capitol in some of the most evocative scenes of the film. Dehumanised and downtrodden, scores from the original films play as children take a stand. In a deliberate change from the books, some action has been amplified to translate better on screen, and while some scenes were altered the core messages have remained. Dr Gaul acts as a contradictory conduit for this, encouraging Coriolanus to question why the Games exist and pushing him on the path from underdog to victor. 

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is successfully reminiscent and original, using sets and scores to call upon the previous films and present the foundations of Panem’s future. It’s the perfect prequel to conclude a franchise. Coriolanus answers Dr Gaul’s questions in the final minutes of the film where he ascends toward his future, looking up at the cold statue of Justice bearing two swords, no scales, and a rainbow skirt.  

VERDICT: 4 stars out of 5.

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