‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes’ is a Triumphant Prequel – Review
Decades before Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) could change the history of Panem with her revolution, Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), was a young man who thought he could make the world a better place. The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes tells the audience how Snow went from someone who wanted to help everyone around him to the cruel villain seen during Katniss’ time, in a beautiful prequel that reminds viewers what they like about this franchise in the first place. Francis Lawrence returns to Panem as if the last Hunger Games movie had come out yesterday, with the filmmaker proving that the franchise can remain relevant today.
When Tom Blyth is introduced as the younger version of President Snow, he can’t help being charming, even if the plot of future installments insists viewers shouldn’t trust him. The nuances of Blyth’s performance allow audiences to understand why the character became the despicable dictator seen in the original film adaptations while adding the violent edge Snow had to work with during his entire life. But everything changes for Coriolanus when he’s asked to turn a Hunger Games tribute into a celebrity.
Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) is introduced as the driving force of the plot, and thanks to Zegler’s performance, she naturally becomes the center of this prequel’s world. Using her charisma to lay down the foundation for the character, Zegler gains the viewer’s trust before revealing the most complex aspects of the District 12 tribute. If West Side Story wasn’t enough proof that the industry’s future might feature Zegler and the center of it, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes brings the possibility back to the table. Zegler emotionally presents a young woman who can’t escape the cruelty of her world but still attempts to fill it with love at every opportunity she’s given.
Even if you had characters as strong as Coriolanus and Baird, it would be hard to go anywhere without good performances, and Lawrence did a great job of letting the young actors find their voice in their work. The romantic tension between the two leads is the driving force of the adaptation, letting audiences fall in love with the characters while the young couple attempts to figure out what’s going on. While the final result isn’t a romantic tale, the emotions planted in the story’s first half allow the movie to deliver the blow with the intensity it was meant to.
The 157-minute-long runtime can be felt when the movie enters its third act. While it may take a while to explore the consequences the tenth edition of the Hunger Games had on the characters’ narratives, the time it takes to arrive at the destination doesn’t take away from the experience. Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt worked on a screenplay that translates Suzanne Collins’ The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes to the big screen with grace, focusing on the emotions felt by Lucy and how Coriolanus didn’t know how to react to them.
The supporting cast of the prequel elevates the story to new heights, with the standout being Viola Davis as she steps into the shoes of the evil Dr. Volumnia Gaul. When the character is introduced in an elegant classroom, it feels like she doesn’t belong in The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes. However, as she continues to steal every scene she’s in with a magnetic presence on the big screen, it becomes clear that Panem is her world, and everyone is just trying to survive in it. After all, not just anyone could influence Coriolanus to become a figure of terror in the future, with Gaul’s attempts at being quirky being a mask for the cruelest person in Panem.
Surrounded by stellar performances from a cast committed to bringing Snow’s origin to life, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a magnificent prequel to a franchise that ruled over the big screen over a decade ago. Zegler stuns with her performance as Lucy Gray Baird, with Blyth stating a robust response to her presence on the screen with his young version of President Snow. Lawrence’s film could make an argument for the dystopian, young adult, literature-based adventure to make a comeback. Still, it’s a simple reminder of how a good script is the base of any good blockbuster.