Clocking in at a little under three hours, The Hunger Games prequel, and latest addition to the universe, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is immaculate. Trust me when I say, I don’t state that lightly. I’ve been a massive fan of The Hunger Games trilogy since I was 12, fourteen years later and nothing has changed. I read the prequel as soon as it dropped in 2020, and reread it in preparation for this film only this past month. If this film had been a letdown, I would have been the first one to claim it. But as it stands now, I actually think that The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is the best film to come out of The Hunger Games franchise. Building on lore, and giving fans unique perspectives on life in the Capitol, in the early games, and into President Snow’s very own adolescence.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes follows an eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) as he struggles to be a mentor in Panem’s notorious 10th Annual Hunger Games, a lofty 64 years before Katniss Everdeen ever becomes a blip on his radar. Though the Snows present themselves like royalty, the shameful reality is they’ve fallen deep into poverty, and their only way out is for Coriolanus to perform well enough in The Games that he receives the notoriety and prizes that come along with it. The one great irony in all of this is his tribute. His potential salvation lies in the hands of a scrappy District 12 girl living in the Seam. A charming performer by the name of Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler).
Speaking of Lucy Gray Baird, I’m aware that after the Snow White debacle, there was a lot of concern as to whether or not Zegler could handle a character of this size. And I am so pleased to report that (one, I always remained on her side, and two) she absolutely killed in the role. With an authentic country twang and the voice of an angel, Rachel Zegler’s portrayal of Lucy Gray Baird couldn’t have been more perfect if she’d been ripped off the book’s pages. This filled me with so much delight, not only as a fan but also as a Latina. Seeing a woman of Colombian descent get the lead role in a major franchise with plenty of Latina fans was just so special. And there was plenty of representation to go around between casting Trans actress Hunter Schafer as Tigris, or Puerto Rican actor (and Zegler’s real-life boyfriend) Josh Andrés Rivera as Sejanus, or African American actor Nick Benson as District 12s Jessup, or even Taiwanese actress Ashley Liao who portrayed Clemensia.
Honestly, the entire cast was amazing. Some other standout aspects were the sets and costume design choices. For the most part, these are places The Hunger Games never explored; universities set in The Capitol, an Army base in 12, the original arena. Places that dripped with lore, and added additional context to the overall world of The Hunger Games. Seeing the school outfits, or even what people in District 12 wore when it wasn’t reaping day allows the audience to really transport themselves into the world. These are two stories taking place decades apart. To have that time difference reflected in the technology, rules of the games, and even styling choices was phenomenal.
Of course, no book-to-film adaptation is without its flaws. If I’m honest, and this is probably very controversial, I don’t actually love the original Hunger Games movies. Don’t get me wrong, I went and saw each and every one of them. If I had an opinion at the time, it would have been only a positive one. But looking back, and especially after re-reading the books, there were so many things the film series missed. I feel like the main cast looked far too old, but it goes beyond that. Some of the best moments from the series were removed or reduced. The first film completely changed Peeta’s character, and I could never buy the original PG-13 rating. The Hunger Games is about children dying, we watch them get whipped, killed, stabbed, exploded, experience cannibalism. The movies should have always been a hard R.
While The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes fixes some of these issues (I.E. a younger cast, keeping characters the same, etc.), it’s not perfect. For starters, it still is PG-13. This pains me as so many of the scenes in the book are haunting because of the disturbing imagery that just isn’t shown in the film. And maybe rather selfishly as someone who adores this universe, I wish The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes could have been a miniseries. I mean let’s be honest, the runtime is long. Two hours and 38 minutes, and it still leaves out so much of what the book offers. I think this story specifically could have benefitted from having extra time to really give each story beat its moment. There is a lot that happens in this amount of time, multiple deaths and tragedies strike before and after the games, and we have to include an entire Hunger Games. It’s a lot to emotionally invest in, and while I do love that the movie is separated into 3 parts, like the book, I think it would have been better if each part had its own few episodes, rather than everything happening in one giant breath.
That being said, I think the way they shortened the book was done very well. For example, in the book, multiple scenes take place in the Capitol Zoo. At least once a day for two weeks Snow visits this Zoo, and so while a lot of big things are happening, there in short separated bursts. The film changes this by combining all those interactions into two scenes. Everything’s kept fairly the same, except it’s just shortened, combined for convenience, and in that way it does work a lot better.
My only true gripe with the film is that it didn’t emphasize just how awful Snow is throughout the story. In the books, you’re in his head, and so you get a first-hand account of how he feels about every interaction. Let me just be clear, Snow is a horrible person. He looks down at everyone, even his own family members. He uses everyone and has little to no sympathy for anything even before The Hunger Games take place. Because The Hunger Games films don’t do narration, we don’t ever get to know what’s going on in his head. And so, you run the risk of the audience almost siding with Snow, or being more sympathetic than they should.
If I’m honest, I feel like I’m being a little nitpicky. Nothing will ever be as good as the books were to me, but this film is pretty darn close. Going back to the cold world of Panem is oddly comforting, and wildly engaging. So much of what I didn’t like about the original trilogy is fixed in this single film. It’s interesting, and while the story is heavy, there’s some brevity within. It feels wrong to call it a fun time, but I’ll be honest in saying I had fun. I’ll explain it like this. I haven’t rewatched any of The Hunger Games films, anytime I do I just end up annoyed at certain portrayals or decisions, but I will be rewatching this one. I’ll probably see it in theaters again.
And if you’d like to join me, and catch The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, which I highly recommend, then by all means, click here to find out where you can buy tickets.
And may the odds be ever in your favor.