Back in 2012, you couldn’t scroll for a single minute through the light blue hellscape of Tumblr without seeing a Hunger Games GIF, and for good reason. It was a masterpiece. From then on, the franchise’s legacy only grew, reaching exponential heights until 2015 when it all came to a close. Now, eight years later, fire is catching once again with the release of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.
So, get ready for everyone to become insufferable again, myself included. The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes arrives almost a decade after the final film in the OG series, but the new movie takes a step back in time to a world before the Mockingjay. A young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) is a student at the Academy, where Panem’s best and brightest young sparks hope to succeed.
His family’s fortune diminished during the lengthy war, and their reputation hangs by a thread that’s quickly unraveling. His only hope lies in the Plinth Prize: a scholarship that could fund his university fees. However, this year’s Hunger Games is different in that 24 Academy students, including Snow, are selected to mentor the tributes drawn from the districts — a Hunger Games first, and very much a bleak experiment.
His assigned tribute is Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a singing traveler pulled from District 12 as part of an internal feud. As Snow realizes that Lucy Gray may be more talented and valuable than he thought, he has to outwit nefarious teachers, rebuild his family’s dying legacy, and get a handle on his growing affection for his own tribute, who will surely die.
Francis Lawrence is back in the director’s chair for this newest cinematic installment, and proves yet again that having a singular vision behind a film series (with the exception of the original action movie) is a rare and true benefit. In fact, this might just be one of the most reliable movie series in existence.
When watching Songbirds and Snakes, it feels as though no time at all has passed between this and the conclusion of the original quadrilogy, thanks to the shockingly consistent visual style. Songbirds meets the high bar set by Lawrence’s past self, and it’s both nostalgic and fresh.
The book is sprawling and dense, so the movie naturally makes cuts. This mostly works, although it’s a shame that among its losses comes some of the finer nuances found in the deeply political novel — namely in Snow himself.
Blyth is captivating enough, so it’s a shame he didn’t get time to sit with Snow’s darker traits that highlight the beginning of a true movie villain. His possessiveness, his anger at his family’s fate, and his desperation to please are elements that would have been safe in Blyth’s hands.
Blyth and Zegler (the latter puts in an admirable enough take on the whimsical Katniss-insert, but is at her best when she’s singing), don’t have the most palpable chemistry but, fortunately, it’s not the thing the whole story hinges on. Rather, there’s a stronger connection between Blyth and Josh Andrés Rivera, who plays Snow’s morally tortured classmate Sejanus. Sejanus is the heart of this piece of Panem history and, thankfully, Rivera proves he’s perfect for the role.
The Hunger Games series always stood out for its high-flying casting and has seen the likes of Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Julianne Moore come through its doors as supporting cast. The same can be said here, with Peter Dinklage and Viola Davis making themselves memorable in the most dubious of ways. But the victor in this cast is Jason Schwartzman as Lucky Flickerman, the host of the televised games.
Schwartzman brings the few laughs to be found in the movie, and he brings them hard. His quippy and blatantly inhumane asides to the Academy students are truly hilarious, given the circumstances in which they arrive, and might even make him (dare I say it) a more memorable host than Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman.
The adaptation includes the book’s most shocking moments, and most of them hit their marks, though the latter half’s impact is lessened a little too much in an effort to shrink things down. There’s one moment, that book readers will remember as the one that knocked the breath out of them when reading Part Three, which becomes an almost blink-and-you-miss-it addition, when really, it should be the biggest emotional punch.
It’s strange, having a Hunger Games movie in which the Game itself isn’t the main event. But the second half is the most important and integral to everything that makes Snow, Snow. For that reason — and you’ll never catch me saying this again — Songbirds and Snakes should have been a two-parter.
In fact, never before has a story been so primed to be cut in half. If we’d had two chapters, the more effective moments of character-building, threat, and deeper conflict might have had more time to shine.
Really, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes shouldn’t work. Part of the reason the original series captured the dedication of young fans around the world was because Katniss was an easy substitute for the reader/watcher. The audience for the first movie was girls like Katniss, and the prequel focuses on the man who tried to take her down.
And yet…it rocks. As a result, we have one of the best YA adaptations to come around in almost a decade, and it’s like we’re sitting in the theater in 2012 once again, our breath hitching as we see these characters come to life. It may not be as perfect as the original Hunger Games movies but, while Snow might not land on top, he gets pretty damn close with this one.
For more cinematic greats, check out our list of the best movies of all time. You can also see what other 2023 movies we’re most excited about, and check out the best teen movies and best horror movies for more troubled teenagers.
An unreasonably good add-on to an already stunning franchise, this Hunger Games prequel hits the spot, leaving us hungry for more. But, indeed, there should have been more.