Written by: Matt Patti | November 15th, 2023
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (Francis Lawrence, 2023) 2½ out of 4 stars.
More than a decade after The Hunger Games was first brought to theater screens worldwide, a return to Panem is in store for those interested this fall. Though the original saga ended in 2015 with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, there is still more story to be told, this time before Katniss and Peeta were ever born. In the new prequel, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, the plot takes place around the 10th Hunger Games.
This Francis Lawrence-directed film is based on the highly successful novel: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, written by author Suzanne Collins, who also wrote the original Hunger Games books. Lawrence’s screen adaptation follows a young Coriolanus Snow as he is selected to be a mentor for the next in the annual Hunger Games. The film is told in three parts, and part one and two are quite riveting, though the third part leaves much to be desired.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes begins as Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth, Benediction) attends the much-anticipated announcement of the winner of a scholarship award for the university he is attending. Snow is surprised to find at the event this year’s Hunger Games gamemaker, Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis, The Woman King) as well as the original inventor of the Hunger Games, Dean Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage, Cyrano). They explain that the Hunger Games had been waning in popularity as of late, and in a desperate attempt to boost ratings, have come up with a plan to inspire creativity for this year’s event.
Unlike in previous years where the reward was assessed based on academic achievement, this year consideration for the scholarship prize will be based on how well the students perform as mentors for tributes in the annual Hunger Games. Snow is paired with a drifter reaped from District 12: a young woman named Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler, West Side Story) who sings as part of a band. Motivated to win the scholarship money, Snow strives to be the best mentor he can be and get Lucy in the spotlight. In doing so, however, he also develops intimate feelings for Lucy that threaten to spin his life out of control.
With so many characters involved early on, it is a great delight to find that all the performances in the film throughout are of high quality. The cream of the crop are Davis, as the diabolical Dr. Gaul, and Dinklage, as the often-drunk Dean Highbottom. Blyth is exceptional as well, however, excelling at a performance that demands many different personality attributes be on display, as his caring yet cunning Snow struggles with balancing affection and a thirst for power. Zegler’s voice carries her role as her songs are music to our ears, and though she doesn’t quite stack up to the more experienced thespians here, she’s mostly up to the task and plays a carefree, spirited singer just fine.
The first two parts of the film match the quality of the acting and even exceed it in some ways. Part one and part two involve intriguing politics and rhetoric around the Hunger Games, with some university students showing utmost support and others challenging the notion. There is also fantastic world-building as we get to see a Panem that much more closely resembles our world than a futuristic sci-fi one. Finally, the 10th annual Hunger Games itself is very well done, featuring a smaller, less advanced arena than what viewers would expect based off of the original movies, which helps create a more claustrophobic environment and ups the ante in terms of danger.
As the viewer is reveling in the tense conclusion of the second part of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, part three arrives, and a mountain of issues appear with it. Part three feels like a completely different movie than the other two, which both gel together quite well. It is also vastly tonally different than the rest of the film and grinds the excitement, intensity, and intrigue to a halt. In its strangest fault, the third part manages to be both uninteresting and incredibly rushed at the same time. It’s quite a messy, baffling end to an otherwise enjoyable film.
Though the third act ruins some of the momentum achieved from the first two, I overall still enjoyed The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. The lackluster part three can’t quite overshadow how genuinely fun and fascinating the first two parts are. Plus, the film actually does stick the landing in the final five or so minutes. If only the rest of part three could rise to the occasion.