Lionsgate gives us the prequel movie The Hunger Games: The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes. But is it a sweet-sounding song or a hissing tone-deaf screech?
The Hunger Games: The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes is the big-screen adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ 2020 novel. The prequel to Collins’ The Hunger Games novels, the film is set 64 years before we meet Katniss Everdeen. Francis Lawrence is back in the director’s chair to continue his association with the franchise for the first time since 2015s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two. The cast for this prequel includes Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Peter Dinklage, Hunter Schafer, Josh Andrés Rivera, Jason Schwartzman, and Viola Davis. Fans of the franchise are looking forward to seeing how the film pans out. But is it a sweet-sounding song that will enchant the audience? Or is it a hissing tone-deaf adaptation that should have stayed on the written page?
Years before he would become the tyrannical President of Panem, eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow is the last hope for his fading lineage, a once-proud family that has fallen from grace in a post-war Capitol. With the 10th annual Hunger Games fast approaching, the young Snow is alarmed when he is assigned to mentor Lucy Gray Baird, the female tribute from impoverished District 12. But, after Lucy Gray commands all of Panem’s attention by defiantly singing during the reaping ceremony, Snow thinks he might be able to turn the odds in their favor. Uniting their instincts for showmanship and newfound political savvy, Snow and Lucy Gray’s race against time to survive will ultimately reveal who is a songbird, and who is a snake.
Fans of the novel shouldn’t worry. The film is a very faithful adaptation of the book. Events and characters have leapt off the written page and into a live-action movie for them to enjoy. Some parts of the book have been removed from the movie version for pacing reasons I guess. But all of the most important parts of the story remain. The themes of love, life, treachery, betrayal, friendship, war and loss are all here as we can expect. However, the ending is rather truncated, changing from what the novel concluded with to a more dramatic, quiet conclusion that shows us the future President Snow as we all remember him.
Fans of the franchise will certainly enjoy what they see on the screen. Others, who either are not fans of the franchise or go into the film with no knowledge of the future story may find the film somewhat of a slog. With such a huge chunk of narrative to present to the audience, and multiple plot threads to present, the film comes across as very long-winded. And that is a shame as I am actually a fan of the novels and the movies in general. It could be that I’m aware of how the film will end, and of what is to come. But I sadly found myself watching with exasperation at times, with a loss of interest at certain points. And that kept nagging at me.
THE HUNGER GAMES
The Hunger Games part of the novel is presented here as it should be. What we read on the written page is created here in all its glory. But reading the events and seeing them in live-action is an eye-opener. Make no mistake, this is brutal. The first Hunger Games movie was edited here in the UK for the violence during the games. The violence in this new movie is far worse, pushing the rating to its very limits. Although we cut away from the more disturbing aspects of the violence before it occurs, the threat and understanding of what just happened remains. We don’t see a lot of blood but we know the tributes have been despatched in extremely violent ways. But at times, we are saddened at the deaths of those so young, as we should be.
We take Arachne Crane’s death for example. Fans of the novel already know she will die at the hands of her tribute, Brandy. This is kept intact for the film version but it is disturbing to actually see it on screen. The more graphic aspects have been obscured, of course. But we see the aftermath in all its glory. Fans will not flinch at this aspect but younger viewers might as well as the easily offended. The arena bombing is also a nasty sequence that unfolds. But compared to the games themselves, they are tame. Even events that happen to certain characters in District 12 later on, although partly obscured, are all here. And it brings the narrative home to us in full.
The cast all fit into the traits and characteristics of who they are portraying extremely well. Tom Blyth as Coriolanus “Coryo” Snow is superb. We know going in how his story will end eventually, and who he becomes. What we don’t know is why. By the end credits we actually see Snow as a sympathetic character, his story revealed to us in full. Coryo starts as a well-meaning, humble student who cares so much about his family and their survival. His friendship with Sejanus Plinth (an excellent Josh Andrés Rivera) makes us want to help him. But gradually, we begin to see the traits we know so well begin to emerge. It is this buildup to who Snow will become eventually that is the crux of the story. And Tom Blyth excels in his role, making us side with Snow, despite knowing how his journey will eventually unfold.
Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird is also excellent, bringing the character to life. From the moment we first see her, Rachel Zegler IS Lucy Gray. Every aspect of her is perfectly enacted, from the shy, quiet girl we know to her eventual return to District 12 after the games. Fans of the novel will be pleased to know that her fate remains the same here as in the book. Along the way, we get to see all sides of the character. From nervous tribute in the games themselves to the aftermath.
Although some of the singing in the movie made me feel at times as if I was watching a musical instead, it all fits well. The quieter scenes play well as do the scenes in the arena themselves. But of course, it is her final scene that has us wondering about her. Is she really the songbird she makes herself out to be, or is she, in reality, the snake?
THE SUPPORTING CAST
The supporting cast all play their parts brilliantly. Josh Andrés Rivera as Sejanus Plinth steals our hearts as Coryo’s best friend. And gives a moving performance throughout. Hunter Schafer as Tigris Snow too is superb. Again, we find ourselves drawn to her, knowing how her story will progress in the future. There is no hint of why she will turn against her cousin when he becomes President. Or why she will eventually become an ally of Katniss Everdeen. All we see here is a woman who adores her cousin, staying faithfully by his side at all times.
Viola Davis as Dr. Volumnia Gaul is extremely unlikeable and creepy from the moment we see her. All the deceit, all the scheming that Gaul does is here in all its glory. Her manipulation comes to the fore as we would expect. Viola Davis gives us a masterclass in acting in her role. For younger viewers, her wild hair and mismatched eyes will scare the life out of them, giving them nightmares. And her performance is pitch-perfect. Her motivations are clear from the start, becoming more clear by the climax.
Peter Dinklage as Casca “Cas” Highbottom is unlikable too as soon as we meet him. Now, I like Peter Dinklage as an actor, his presence always elevates whatever project he appears in. And he does so here. From the second he appears, we want to boo and hiss at him. We find ourselves hating his existence almost instantly. And Dinklage gives us a performance that is perfect for what is to come. His antagonism towards Coriolanus becomes a real reason for us to hate him. By the climax, all will be revealed as to why. Peter Dinklage manages to hold us in the palm of his hand throughout.
Jason Schwartzman as Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman is a sheer delight. As the assumed ancestor to Caesar Flickerman, who would host later editions of the Games. And played so excellently by Stanley Tucci in the original movies, Schwartzman actually equals Tucci in the acting stakes. From the moment we first see him, Flickerman is both slimy and manipulative as well as being the character that brightens up the heaviness of the story. He is, of course, the comedic aspect that we have come to expect. And Schwartzman pulls it off to brilliant effect. He manages to lighten the tone when he appears on screen, and we miss him when his part is over.
THE DIRECTION AND THE SCREENPLAY
The film is directed by Francis Lawrence from a screenplay by Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt. And it feels as if Lawrence has never been away. With his history with the original set of movies, excluding the original, Lawrence returns with flair and ease. He directs proceedings with a terrific eye. Every aspect of what we see on screen looks as it should. Every piece of rubble, every dark corner of District 12, and every grubby face we see is brought to us with aplomb. Lawrence knows the world of Panem inside and out, and the film feels so natural in his assured hands. The colors are bright when needed, and bleached out when appropriate. And the film looks excellent
The screenplay also manages to pull off everything that we need from the novel. Again, some aspects and things in the book are not present here, but there is more than enough to keep the audience entertained. Perhaps too much. Given the size of the novel, the film can be heavy-going. While it is entertaining, it also feels like we are on a long journey to get to the climax. Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt have adapted Suzanne Collins’ prequel brilliantly. It is an almost faithful adaptation, broken down into three parts. And one that mega-fans will lap up.
With everything in place to make a terrific adaptation of the novel, you’d think the film was a monumental success. To many, it may be. But to me, it felt just too heavy. Like walking in a huge puddle of mud and dragging your feet through it to firmer ground. Don’t get me wrong, what we see on screen and experience is a worthy effort, one that will probably rake in hundreds of millions at the box office. It deserves that much. But with so much story to get through before we reach the climax, we inevitably find ourselves sighing at times.
By the climax, we have been on quite a journey, one that does give us a great payoff. By the time we reach the end credits, we know more about Coriolanus Snow’s background as he starts on his journey to becoming the tyrannical President of Panem that we know. We discover everything we needed to know. And why from cheering him on at the start, do we despise him at the climax? We can understand why he became who he is later on, and his motivations. It’s the getting there that we find tiring at times. The film is enjoyable, with great performances, and some impressive sequences. But ultimately, it is more of a good song rather than a great one. And for some of the audience, we may hunger for something better.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes will be in cinemas from this Friday, courtesy of Lionsgate.
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