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The Hunger Games prequel is a better villain origin story than Joker

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes gives the Hunger Games' baddest baddie his origin story, but it brings much more nuance than DC's Joker.

The Hunger Games prequel is a better villain origin story than Joker

Coriolanus Snow is a dick. Anyone who watched the Hunger Games movies or read the Hunger Games books could tell you that, so it was perhaps a surprise for some in 2020 to see that he was the protagonist of the Hunger Games prequel novel ‘The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’. That story is now on the big screen with a glittering movie adaptation, with Tom Blyth as the young Snow.

President Snow, of course, loomed large over the events of The Hunger Games franchise, ruling Panem with an iron fist and slapping down any hope of a rebellion from the persecuted districts. Cinema icon Donald Sutherland was among the standout members of The Hunger Games cast, delivering one of the best movie villains of the 2010s.

When he told Katniss in Mockingjay Part 2 that “we both know I’m not above killing children”, he tossed that line away with such ease that we knew he was pure evil. This wasn’t a man who should be redeemed – or even could be – which is what makes The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes such an impressive piece of work. No one is trying to redeem Coriolanus, but the story does try to understand him.

That, in a nutshell, is what the best villain origin stories need. Not every bad guy has a defensible opinion, and nor should they. Not every bad guy needs to be secretly right all along. But that doesn’t mean the ones who are simply vile don’t have their reasons for being that way.

This is in stark contrast to one of the most successful new movies from the last few years based on a villain’s formative moments – 2019’s DC movie, Joker.

Joaquin Phoenix won an Oscar for Joker

That film positioned Arthur Fleck as an abused and abandoned man who initially murders in self-defense before ultimately becoming more cold-blooded. It placed his violence as a consequence of political failings and a broken health service, rather than as the actions of an evil person, ending on a note of uncomfortable triumph for the character.

Joaquin Phoenix won an Oscar for his performance, and many DC fans lauded the definitive take on one of the great Batman villains. But for many viewers, myself included, the movie felt too celebratory and too willing to indulge in the darker side of Fleck’s worldview. We all agree that many of the world’s systems are broken, but we’re not prepared to incite a murderous revolution to overturn them.

There’s very little sympathy, on the other hand, for the views of Snow. When we first meet the young Coriolanus in the Hunger Games prequel, he’s a strange mixture of pampered and desperate. He’s being groomed at the Academy in Panem as a potential leader, trading off the legacy of the Snow name, but he’s also concealing his family’s dire financial situation. He’s playing the role of the Capitol’s high society while frantically paddling beneath the surface.

Tom Blyth as Coriolanus Snow in The Ballad of Songbird and Snakes

This sounds like a recipe for sympathy, but we’re left in no doubt as to Snow’s fearsome and ruthless anti-district ideology. He believes the Hunger Games to be a good thing and a way to punish the districts for the rebellion that claimed the lives of many, including his parents. He sees the death and barbarism of the Hunger Games in all of its blood-soaked horror, but he believes it to be necessary.

This puts him in conflict with his friend, Sejanus Plinth, who grew up in the districts and is repulsed by the idea of the Hunger Games and the vice-like grip of the Capitol. Sejanus is, in fact, the true hero of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, as director Francis Lawrence told us himself. Snow is focused only on maintaining his own position and self-preservation, ultimately at the cost of his relationship with Lucy Gray Baird – the Hunger Games tribute he is assigned to mentor.

Any of the seemingly more noble things he does during the story are driven almost entirely by his love for her, rather than any desire to work against the Capitol. He does want Lucy Gray to survive the arena, but we’re always reminded that the end goal of her victory will be an academic prize for him and the restoration of his family’s status in society.

Even Lucy Gray is a means to an end. And actually, his “love” is as much a possessive obsession as it is any sort of genuine affection. She’s district and so she’s inherently a lesser being in his eyes, but he wants to “own” her and lift her into his world.

Coriolanus Snow and Lucy Gray Baird in the Hunger Games prequel

Crucially, though, none of this prevents The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes from being a fascinating story and, in our Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes review, we called it one of the best movies to come from Suzanne Collins’ books. We wrote that the movie is “both nostalgic and fresh,” giving its toughest moments the complexity they deserve. That includes allowing the villain to be a villain, even though he’s the protagonist – a difficult balancing act but a worthwhile one.

Snow and Joker are, in actual fact, complete opposites. Snow is evil because he wants to maintain the corrupt and violent order of things for his own reasons, while the DC villain wants brutal, unpredictable chaos to replace a brutal, predictable system. It’s almost impossible to focus an origin tale around a character who just wants to burn everything down, especially when you’re trying to make that person sympathetic – at least to a degree.

In contrast, the evil of Coriolanus Snow is a very believable one. He has no interest in being the hero of any story; he does what he has to do to survive and pursue his political ambitions. Any number of real-life politicians are reflected in Snow’s willingness to preserve a horrible system, knowing he can benefit from it. The best fantasy movies often speak very clearly to reality, especially when it comes to their bad guys.

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So while it was a bold choice to focus on Snow as the main character of Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes – rather than the more relatable Sejanus or Lucy Gray – it was even bolder not to sand off any of the character’s malevolent edges. It turns out the best way to tell a villain’s origin story is to lean into their evil as early as possible. That’s Coriolanus Snow’s secret: he’s always a dick.

For more from the new movie, find out about the biggest book changes in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, as well as the Hunger Games Easter eggs you might have missed. We’ve also got a complete guide to the Hunger Games movies in order. Finally, learn how Jennifer Lawrence went deaf for a week after a Hunger Games stunt. That’s commitment!