Let’s talk about the Hunger Games, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. To be honest, I had no idea a Hunger Games prequel book even existed, so when I saw there was a new Hunger Games movie coming out, I was skeptical—was this some kind of sleazy cash grab? Then I saw the trailer, and I was intrigued. A Breaking Bad-style narrative about President (Coriolanus) Snow’s fall from grace into becoming one of the evilest dictators in movie history? The transformation of an idealistic, lovestruck young man into a ruthless, power-hungry tyrant who forces children to fight to the death? It certainly sounded like it had the potential for a compelling narrative. But of course, such a story is only as good as the execution of its character arc.
I got around to seeing the movie, and, well…at least the first two-thirds of it might have been the best Hunger Games movie to date. The last third, on the other hand…
Here’s all the good and the bad about this Hunger Games prequel.
- The female lead, Lucy Gray Baird (played by Rachel Zegler) sings a lot, and there are some real bangers in this movie.
- The characters in the actual Hunger Games finally look like the grimy, impoverished and hungry teens they are supposed to be, rather than swole, immaculate, Instagram-model types like Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence. Except for Lucy Gray, who randomly wears blush and lipstick all the time because she’s the main character.
- In general, the set design is on point.
- Tom Blyth, who plays young President Snow, is really good.
- The Hunger Games scenes are way more heart-wrenching, impactful, and tense than in previous installments.
- The movie crams a lot into its two-and-a-half hours (90 minutes in, after what seemed like a potential climax wrapped up, my wife turned to me and said, “wait, it’s not over?”) but somehow it never feels rushed and every scene has space to breathe.
- The Coriolanus Snow puns are on point. “You hear that?” Peter Dinklage asks, standing in the middle of a silent room. “It’s the sound of Snow falling.” Nice. “Snow always lands on top,” young Snow quips at an enemy. Ha-ha. This movie manages more Snow-related puns in just two+ hours than Game of Thrones managed to cram into eight entire Jon Snow-filled seasons. I can’t say that hearing that Dinklage line in the trailer was the reason I decided to see this movie…but I can’t say it wasn’t, either.
- Lucy Gray feels a little underdeveloped. Her relationship with Snow feels a bit icky and the movie never adequately explores the effects of her trauma and oppression on her, nor the fact that Snow was, despite his good intentions, part of that oppressive force.
- Once again, the movie cheats by having some of the children who are forced into the Hunger Games act all “evil” (saying evil-ey things and enjoying all the murder too much) to try to make you forget they are innocent kids being forced to fight to the death and make it seem like it’s sort of ok when the main characters kill them. But it’s not.
- Alas…now we come to it. The biggest letdown is Songbirds and Snakes’ ending. I shan’t spoil it, but a film like this—about one man’s switch from good to evil–really hinges on how compelling the reason for that switch is. Here, it is muddled and inadequate. What makes it all the more frustrating is that I thought I knew where this movie was going. For a long time there, it looked like Songbirds and Snakes was setting up a scenario where a group of oppressed rebels, including the girl Snow loved, in the act of striking back against the government that oppressed them, might end up inadvertently killing Snow’s best friend Sejanus, an idealistic man who was only trying to help them. If that kind of brutal twist had happened, I could totally have bought a descent into rage and betrayal-fueled evil from Snow. That is, after all, how real world tyrants, terrorists, and killers are all too often made. Unfortunately, that was not the twist the movie decided to go with. What actually happened was a lot less compelling, a lot more confusing, and hinged way too much on some unbelievable and poorly explained contrivances in the third act. The movie was really relying on me believing that somehow someone would, merely by locating a gun used to commit a murder, be able to figure out who exactly fired said gun at whom…even in the absence of any fingerprints or any other means of connecting shooter to weapon. Alas, while I’m sure this wasn’t the intent, by the end of the movie, Snow comes off less as tortured protagonist and more as a whiny “nice guy” who got rejected by his chosen waifu and just could not deal and decided the most logical response was widespread child murder. Which is a terrible shame. Maybe in the book, with the courtesy of an internal monologue, the transition is less jarring, but it really does not work here.
Because of that disappointing ending, I can only give this movie a B-. What makes this interesting is that the filmmaking here is on point, and, as I understand it, the plot hews very closely to the book. Which means that the flaws here derive either from the fact that the book itself had a bad plot, or perhaps one that relies heavily on inner dialogue that is exceptionally hard to translate to film. Maybe someone who’s read Songbirds and Snakes could tell you which it is.