‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ Is a Thrilling Prequel That Heightens the Franchise

The prequel has become one of the standard clichés when studios try to bank off a popular franchise years after the last title was released. It’s quite hard to pull off successfully because the world of the story needs to be involved enough for us to care. “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” is one of the best recent franchise prequels, working as a gift for fans of the original “Hunger Games” films and books, while standing on its own as a terrific dystopian action drama. It’s also deeper than a popcorn escape, showing off genuine artistry and, like its predecessors, some powerful metaphors. Instead of just recycling what came before, richer layers are added to the overall saga.

The setting is 60 years before the events of the first “The Hunger Games” film. Totalitarian Panem, what’s left of the USA, is already a brutally unequal society marked by a recent uprising of its lower class “districts.” A young cadet named Coriolanus “Coryo” Snow (Tom Blyth) is maneuvering around the Capitol’s Academy for the offspring of the elite. His own family struggles following the death of his powerful father at the hands of rebels. It’s time again for Panem’s famous Reaping, when young inhabitants from each district are selected for the Hunger Games, where they must fight to the death while being viewed by a Capitol audience. Coryo and his classmates are tapped to be “mentors” to this year’s selections. This is how Coryo meets Lucy Gray (Rachel Zegler), a traveling singer who belongs to a community known as the Covey. The brain behind the brutal games, Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis), is seeking to make them grander in order to attract a bigger audience. Coryo finds himself going for the opportunity to make the games more exciting and thus gaining prominence, and protecting Lucy, who has clearly captured his heart.

The original “The Hunger Games,” based on the highly popular young adult novels by Suzanne Collins, was a box office hit and a dystopia worthy of being ranked with classics such as “THX 1138.” The sequels would amount to a huge franchise that raked in $3 billion. Jennifer Lawrence’s stardom was assured as District 12 competitor turned rebel leader Katniss Everdeen. Collins inevitably wrote a prequel in 2020, which is the basis for this new film. She goes for the familiar route made so famous by the “Star Wars” prequels in the ‘00s. Now a major villain becomes the focus in their formative years. Fans are walking in aware Coryo will eventually become the dreaded President Snow (Donald Sutherland). To make a villain’s backstory compelling, it needs real pathos. Returning to direct is Francis Lawrence, who directed the three original “Hunger Games” sequels. His scope remains grandiose while knowing how to combine it with actual, intimate story elements. Basically, he’s making a real movie.

“A Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” boasts a very Marvel-like running time of 2 hours and 37 minutes, without ever dragging. The word “epic” has been used to the point of overkill, yet it’s fitting here. Wisely divided into chapters or parts, the story begins as an introduction to the key players, who are all memorable. In addition to Viola Davis’ mad scientist, Peter Dinklage is great as Dean Casca Highbottom. Highbottom is the actual creator of the Hunger Games and looks like a tortured soul out of a Fritz Lang movie, aware he has blood on his hands while unable to stop serving a fascist state. The screenplay, like a good book, actually forms characters with moral and social complexities. Coryo’s best friend out of the Academy is Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera), a former district resident with a wealthy father, who feels anger at the cruelty of the games. Tom Blyth’s take on Coryo is also a wonderful performance, bringing depth to a character we’ve only known as an older, ruthless dictator. We sympathize with his urge to provide for his family, including sister Tigris (Hunter Schafer of “Euphoria”). Our feelings are then challenged when his ambitions are clearly starting to blind any moral reasoning.

There is plenty of exciting action that, like the other movies, is challenging at times to the audience. When the district competitors are thrown into an arena to battle it out, with the looming threat of poisonous, multi-colored snakes bred by Dr. Gaul, do we root for or gasp when the teenagers impale each other? Jason Schwartzman plays Lucky Flickerman, an obvious relative of the bombastic host of the games in the original films played by Stanley Tucci. He’s absolutely hilarious and slimy to watch, commenting on the games with no care about the slaughter. Collins is clearly always borrowing from Ancient Rome, from the characters’ names to the idea of gladiatorial combat as entertainment. But isn’t that how we’re still entertained? From true crime to reality television, we hunger for distraction by watching others endure extreme, threatening conditions. The world is watching children being slaughtered in the Middle East right now and doing nothing about it. “The Hunger Games” is a fantasy of course, but like much good pop art, it’s commenting on real things as well. 

As Blyth put it to Entertainment Voice, bringing a younger Snow to life meant taking a serious look at the formation of a person. “So very early on Francis and I talked about making this character my own,” he says, “and also just kind of asking what drives him now as opposed to what drives him later on when he’s president and a dictator and a tyrant, because here he is a different character in this movie and in this book. He’s a character who is a brother and a grandson and a student, and an ambitious kid who just wants to do well in his life.” Lawrence and cast are thus making an engaging study in the roots of tyranny that doubles as a slick piece of popcorn filmmaking.

The best section of the film is its third act, when Coryo and Lucy’s romance takes on the tone of some tragic Appalachian fable. She’s from District 12, which is later the home of Katniss, and performs in smoky dance corners of factories that look like they were taken from “The Grapes of Wrath.” She has a country twang to her voice and music, living in a picturesque place that promises another kind of life for Coryo. There is much tension and intrigue, including underground rebels, the threat of betrayal and the regime’s cruel execution of dissidents. But instead of solely focusing on the action, Lawrence and writers Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt actually let the narrative develop, which is why the running time doesn’t slog. More than sci-fi or dystopia, the drama becomes a classic war-time romance, with good scenes where Coryo and Lucy face issues of trusting each other. They want to be together, yet have different motivations or ambitions. He feels the attraction to rising in the Capitol. She just wants a free life. Zegler, so good in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” proves again she can sing well, while also giving her character both youthful energy and the maturity of someone who has suffered. “I feel like, you know, Lucy Gray is a war-torn teenager who has had everything she knows ripped from her,” Zegler tells Entertainment Voice. “She has to make the best of it. And that makes it all the more fun to go back and watch the original trilogy and kind of see how Coriolanus remains haunted by Lucy Gray, even in his late life, because there are echoes of her within Katniss Everdeen.”

As with the other films, “The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” is visually enveloping with enough starkness and fantasy. Bombed out cities have an eerie resonance when compared to current images on the news. Panem’s fascistic architecture looks like a combo of “Metropolis” and “Blade Runner,” with sly nods at the Romans even in the wardrobe. Mussolini was after all a big fan of the classical world. District 12 looks taken out of a Faulkner novel, with moments shot by cinematographer Jo Willems that nod at classic war dramas. Many franchises suffer from a lack of inspiration or joy in their making when studios start over-expanding the content. If this one proves to be a hit, “The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” promises a satisfying return to the “Hunger Games” by knowing what appealed so much about the original books and movies. These may be action fables originally intended for a young adult audience, but done with good craft they become rather powerful fiction that rings too true.

The Hunger Games: The Balld of Songbirds & Snakes” releases Nov. 17 in theaters nationwide.