The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes
2023, PG-13, 158 min. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Starring Rachel Zegler, Tom Blyth, Viola Davis, Josh Andres Rivera, Hunter Schafer, Peter Dinklage, Jason Schwartzman, Fionnula Flanagan.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Nov. 17, 2023
You don’t have to have prior knowledge of the Hunger Games series – Suzanne Collins' YA book trilogy or the four-part film series adaptation starring Jennifer Lawrence – to make sense of this prequel film, though folks new to the material could be forgiven for wondering why so much energy is invested in the Draco Malfoy-looking guy with a thing for roses. That would be Coriolanus Snow (Blyth), scion of a once-mighty District 1 family ruined by the civil war that ripped apart Panem. He’s working double time to keep up the ruse that the Snows are still wealthy and influential; now all he’s got to do to secure his future is win the Plinth Prize, which will guarantee a ticket to university and the realization of all his ambitions (possibly ... presidential?).
Ah, but this isn’t The Hunger Games: Cori Goes to College; soon enough the titular death match arrives, with Snow assigned to mentor a teenager named Lucy Gray (Zegler) from District 12, the same Appalachia-like coal-mining country Katniss Everdeen will call home a half-century later. Lucy Gray, a singer in a hillbilly band, is conceived as aggressively folksy, but Zegler (West Side Story’s Maria) spins gold from so much cornpone. Her innate charisma is essential to the film, which can’t re-create the startling newness of concept – wherein children are forced to fight to the death in an arena, an annual reminder of the cost of rebellion against the capital – nor do much to individuate the other tributes, who are dressed like Dust Bowl hobos and whose inevitable deaths are presented by returning director Francis Lawrence as tragic but shrugging.
That attitude isn’t too far off from Snow’s; though he forms an intense bond with his tribute Lucy Gray, he has no larger qualms about the Games. In fact, when viewership lags, he pitches new ideas to the Head Gamemaker, Dr. Gaul (interpreted by Viola Davis, likably unhinged, as Miss Havisham meets Mad Scientist). The problem in adaptation here is that Collins’ source book accessed Snow’s inner monologue, a churn of competing emotions and priorities at odds with his unruffled outer self. Without that insight, Snow’s evolution from war-scarred orphan to what Donald Sutherland is playing in the original quadrilogy is rendered as blank as, well, snow.