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Review: ‘The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ reinvigorates the ‘Hunger Games’ franchise

Courtesy Murray Close

By Muna Nnamani     11/28/23 11:40pm

Review: ★★★★★

Set 64 years before beloved heroine Katniss Everdeen entered the arena, “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” employs a young President Snow as its protagonist. As it turns out, long before he was orchestrating the Hunger Games seen in Suzanne Collins’ original trilogy, Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) was poor as dirt. Between his father’s death and the Snow family’s sudden loss of wealth, Snow, his grandmother and his cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer) must fend for themselves.

The film opens at the beginning of the tenth Hunger Games, with Snow and each of classmates assigned a District tribute to his mentor. Tired of hiding his poverty from his peers, Snow finds himself with two goals. First, he aims to win the Plinth Prize — a full-ride scholarship given to the top of his class and now, the most notable Hunger Games mentor. Next, at the request of Head Gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul, he wants to boost the Games’ ratings by adding a little glamor to the process. As it turns out, nobody wants to watch malnourished children fight to the death in a dusty arena.

To do this, he must ensure the survival of his tribute, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a shanty-belting singer from District Twelve. She’s a natural performer but not a fighter, so Snow fights her battles from outside the arena. 

Just like any film revival, the announcement of this movie was met with skepticism. Between the unmatched quality of the original film trilogy and the success of Suzanne Collins’ written prequel of the same name, “Songbirds” had high standards to reach — but it easily does.

Every scene in this movie is dazzling. From Snow and Lucy Gray’s hikes across flowing plains to the early game arena’s steampunk look, the sets convey a Panem that is futuristic but has a charming, old-timey feel. The original movies established that the Capitol was evil, but never fully represented its elegance and magic. For the first time, this magic is on full display. The outfits are gorgeous and Capitol citizens are written as real people who we can root for.

The entire cast also shines. Hunter Schafer gives one of the best performances, bringing remarkable humility to Tigris’ character, and Viola Davis’ portrayal of Dr. Gaul was effortlessly twisted. While Katniss Everdeen is irreplaceable as the series’ female protagonist, Zegler’s Lucy Gray is a brightly dressed breath of fresh air. Seeing the Games through her eyes helps viewers understand them differently. In Zegler’s own words during a “Time” interview, “Lucy Gray is a performer forced to fight, and Katniss is a fighter forced to perform.”

However, the center of “Songbirds” is Tom Blyth’s ability to transform a poor boy into Panem’s president.

Snow’s progression into the tyrannical ruler we all know is entirely believable. Like all good villains, he doesn’t purposely become one. Instead, he takes step after step in the wrong direction, believing fully that he can turn back around once he’s reached his goal. Coriolanus Snow is a character whose growth we are invested in.

Characters who we can root for are an essential part of the “Hunger Games” franchise, so it is no wonder why being invested in Snow’s story feels nostalgic. It takes us back to middle school days spent saving up for the books and debating about whether Katniss should have ended up with Peeta or Gale. In fact, “A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is full of nostalgia. Several references to Katniss are made, and even its trailer is punctuated with Rue’s four-note whistle.

But of course, this movie is not about Katniss. It’s about the dictator who tried to kill her.

When Coriolanus’ transformation into President Snow is complete, viewers are left heartbroken. But that only means that “Songbirds” did exactly what it set out to do: humanize a tyrant.

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