When I first found out that The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, the newest addition to the Hunger Games series, was an origin story for series villain President Snow, I was sceptical. Was a prequel humanising a dictator who forces children to fight each other to the death really what we needed? As it turns out, my scepticism was completely unnecessary. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, both the book published in 2020 and the film in late 2023 released in cinemas, is a worthy and entertaining addition to the previous Hunger Games entries, complementing its themes of power, tyranny, and human nature.
The story follows a teenage Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) during the Tenth Hunger Games, 64 years before the events of the first book/film, as he mentors that year’s female tribute from District 12, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler). It details the growing complexity and romantic feelings in Snow and Lucy Gray’s relationship coupled with Snow’s need for his tribute to succeed in the games to restore his powerful family’s lost fortune, and how these conflicting impulses eventually come to a head.
Overall, the film’s loyalty to the book is one of its main strengths. Although the book comes in at over 500 pages, the film’s script is clever in terms of what it decides to focus on and what to cut or change, managing to prioritise the book’s most important scenes and moments. When it does diverge from the source material, the film does this in a pragmatic way – for example, adding more action and fight scenes to the actual Games. Whilst in the book they were won more by stealth, this change allows the film to keep the pace lively both during the middle section and throughout the film.
Some of the film’s other strengths include the rich set and costume design, which brings to life the retro glamour of the Capitol from the book extremely well. There are also strong performances, especially from Zegler, Viola Davis as slightly ‘not all there’ Head Gamemaker Dr Volumnia Gaul, and Jason Schwartzmann as dry-witted host Lucretius ‘Lucky’ Flickerman. Additionally, the final third of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a real highlight and manages to replicate the book’s suspense and tension very well.
One issue which may hinder the film as a whole is that the opening third seems somewhat rushed, especially when compared to the book’s slow build-up of the relationship between Coriolanus and Lucy Gray. While it’s understandable that such a lengthy page count can’t be adapted into a feature-length film with no alterations or cuts, the relationship between the two main characters suffers due to the shortening of the book’s first section. As it stands in the film, it is harder to see why Snow goes to such lengths to help Lucy Gray win even at risk to his own future.
Furthermore, some concepts the book implies or teases out have to be spelt out bluntly for the sake of runtime in the film. This can at times counteract one of the book’s main strengths – its subtle storytelling.
However, overall, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a strong new instalment which complements the original Hunger Games films. Both philosophical and entertaining, the film manages to be a loyal adaptation of the book by sticking to its key themes while knowing when to transcend it. And it even manages to portray President Snow in a compelling way without sanitising his awful actions – so it turns out I had nothing to worry about after all.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is in cinemas now.
Read our other Hunger Games and dystopian culture reviews below: