THE HUNGER GAMES: BALLAD OF SOPNBIRDS & SNAKES | Cineplex Pictures | November 17, 2023
Starring: Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Peter Dinklage, Hunter Schafer, Josh Andrés Rivera, Jason Schwartzman, Viola Davis
Directed By: Francis Lawrence
THE HUNGER GAMES: THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS & SNAKES follows a young Coriolanus (Tom Blyth) who is the last hope for his failing lineage, the once-proud Snow family that has fallen from grace in a post-war Capitol. With his livelihood threatened, Snow is reluctantly assigned to mentor Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a tribute from the impoverished District 12. But after Lucy Gray’s charm captivates the audience of Panem, Snow sees an opportunity to shift their fates. With everything he has worked for hanging in the balance, Snow unites with Lucy Gray to turn the odds in their favor. Battling his instincts for both good and evil, Snow sets out on a race against time to survive and reveal if he will ultimately become a songbird or a snake.
REVIEW BY: Darren Zakus
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is an exciting return to world of Panem and the Hunger Games, offering audiences a new story full of intrigue, danger and romance as we witness a young Coriolanus Snow rise to power and descent into darkness, brought to life by spectacular performances from Rachel Zegler and Viola Davis.
Back in 2008, Katniss Everdeen took the world by storm as The Hunger Games became the next literary sensation, filling the void left by the Harry Potter series and the Twilight saga. Naturally, the series was adapted for the big screen, becoming an instant box office hit with an all star cast led by the magnificent Jennifer Lawrence. And while the last film in the series, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2, closed out Katniss’s story back in 2015, it is time for audiences to return to Panem and the Hunger Games. Based on Suzanne Collins’s prequel novel, chronicling how a young Coriolanus Snow became the tyrannical ruler of Panem that we meet in the original series, this story digs deeper into the political philosophy touched upon in the original trilogy of novels. And while it is not a perfect adaptation of the novel, with a talented cast and the standout moments of the novel being translated well to the big screen, this is another winning entry in the ever popular series.
Set decades before Katniss Everdeen volunteered as tribute, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, this film follows Coriolanus Snow as a young man and mentor for the 10th annual Hunger Games. While using his role as mentor to set himself and his family up to return to their former glory in the Capitol, Coriolanus is assigned the female tribute from District 12: Lucy Gray Baird. While at first Lucy Gray seems like she will be one of the first victims of the Hunger Games, Coriolanus begins to learn that there is much more than meets the eye to Lucy Gray as he begins to develop feelings for her as he prepares her for the Hunger Games.
There is no denying that adapting the entirety of Collins’s novel into one film is a daunting task (which clocks in at over five hundred pages in length) and unlike Mockingjay, this novel is not split into two parts, which is one of the film’s strengths. It’s a streamlined version of the novel, making lots of small changes to keep the story moving that fans of the novel will notice but will be okay with, maintaining the core story of Coriolanus and Lucy Gray’s romance and Coriolanus’s descent into the deadly ruler he destined to become. Following the same three part structure of the novel, the film briskly moves through the story’s events and keeps the excitement up for the entire two hour and forty-five minute runtime, capturing all the standout moments of the novel. Where the adaptation pales in comparison to the source material is in the depth it explores Coriolanus’s descent. In the novel, there is a rich discussion about control, chaos, human nature, and contract within the world of Panem that guides Coriolanus’s transformation that creates a fascinating character study. The novel set up a great dichotomy between the young, power hungry man wanting to reclaim his family name, and how Lucy Gray thaws his cold heart while displaying Coriolanus’s potential for good. The film captures this idea, but it feels surface level in comparison during the first two parts as it’s hard to translate this internal conflict within Coriolanus to the screen, especially with lots of his moments with Dr. Gaul being left out of the film that really fuels his descent. Though, by the third act, the screenwriters capture the most important and influential moments in Snow’s turn to darkness, perfectly recreating the haunting and unforgettable conclusion to the novel that will leave you shaken.
Leading the film is Tom Blyth as Coriolanus Snow, and he does a great job with the script he is given to work with. He captures the charm of Coriolanus easily, making him an enticing lead character, while also showing the potential for darkness within him. With the screenplay only scratching the surface of the inner conflict within Coriolanus that drives his downfall, the cunning nature of the character never breaks out in Blyth’s performance. This makes it hard to see that this same character would later become the terrifying villain played by Donald Sutherland in the main series of films, but it is not a detriment to the film as the story of the last part of the film drives this transformation home. Overall, Blyth gives a strong lead performance that showcases his potential as an actor, but it’s easy to see how excellent he could have been with a more developed script.
Without question, the standout performance of the film belongs to Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird. From the second she appears on screen, Zegler is impossible to take your eyes off of as she gives a spirited performance. Alluring, tender but with an awareness of the world that has allowed Lucy Gray to survive everything life has thrown at her, Zegler stuns with her performance and becomes the emotional centre of the film. Her chemistry with Blyth is passionate, instantly selling the romance between their two characters, while she captures a disdain for control and the government of Panem that is reminiscent of Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen. Though, it's in the musical numbers where she truly shines, allowing her angelic voice to dominate the film. The songs are pulled directly from Collins’s novel, each with a haunting meaning that propels her character’s story, allows Zegler’s performance to become a showstopper. Between her performance here and in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, it is evident why Zegler is nabbing every leading role in Hollywood as she is a truly talented actress.
While the film is focused on Coriolanus and Lucy Gray, there is a wonderful cast of supporting characters brought to life by a talented group of actors. Viola Davis is deeply unsettling as the diabolical head gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul, capturing not only a sadistic scientist willing to use anyone as a test subject, but a cunning intellect that sets Coriolanus down his path of darkness. There is not a second that Davis is on screen where a chill won’t go down your spine, proving why she is one of the best actresses working in Hollywood today. Peter Dinklage is a great casting choice for Dean Casca Highbottom, bringing to life this complex character with ease. Capturing not only the disdain of Coriolanus, but also the fear at the ramifications of his creation, it’s a compelling performance even if Dinklage has a small role in the film. And lighting up the screen with her bubbly personality is Hunter Schafer as Coriolanus’s cousin Tigris. Though her role has been decreased significantly from the novel, Schafer is excellent every second she is on screen, especially at the film’s conclusion which teases the future of her relationship with her cousin.
From a visual standpoint, the creative team has created a wonderful film. The costumes are outstanding, capturing not only the opulence and wealth of the Capitol, but also down to earth stylings of District 12. The production design understands the advanced technology of Panem, while recreating a mid-twentieth century style look to the world that is impeccably designed. The sets, especially the arena and those in District 12, are impressive, while the CGI blends well into the world being developed on screen. It has the blockbuster look in every frame, helping to support the exciting experience created by the story and performances.
The odds are ever in favour of audiences hungry for another exciting tale out of The Hunger Games series, as the latest entry has everything that fans will want and more. While Suzanne Collins’s novel has a few speed bumps in being adapted to the big screen that prevents the film from being as rich and powerful as the novel, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is without doubt a worthy entry to the series. The descent of Coriolanus Snow into darkness and his rise to power in the government of Panem makes for an exciting character study, combined with outstanding performances from Viola Davis and Rachel Zegler, including some wonderful musical moments from Zegler, ensures that The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a great big screen experience that never fails for a second to entertain.