THE HUNGER GAMES: THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS & SNAKES (2023)
Release Date: 11/17/23 [Cinemas]
Genre: Action. Adventure. Drama.
"Coriolanus Snow mentors and develops feelings for the female District 12 tribute during the 10th Hunger Games."
OUR MOVIE REVIEW:
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes proves that Suzanne Collins’ world still has a lot to give - though its long, contemplative character study still works better as a piece of literature and less as a film. The Hunger Games, directed by Gary Ross, came out 11 years ago, following Katniss into the 74th hunger games in Panam, a dystopian future of America ravaged by civil war. That first film adapted the book by Suzanne Collins faithfully, to a degree few other franchises in the 21st century ever have (or will). It succeeded at the box office, allowing for 3 sequels adapting the rest of The Hunger Games Trilogy, and went to rest in 2015 with the release of Mockingjay: Part 2. That trilogy focused on revolution and the destruction of the Hunger Games. It’s a story of disgust, injustice, control and revolution. In its heyday, everyone wanted to be Katniss from District 12, fighting against the Capitol. If you scrolled through tumblr, you would be sure to find many memes and posts centered around Katniss’ universal appeal. It’s this central conceit, that people who grew up in America saw themselves as Katniss, that The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes seems to despise the most.
The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes takes place 64 years before The Hunger Games, and centers a young Coriolenus Snow (Tom Blyth) on his quest to ascend from an orphan into a true member of the capitol. Every year, during the Reaping, the highest achieving student within the capitol would receive the Plinth prize, a fortune to spend on education and to create a lasting legacy for their life. But in the 10th year of the Hunger Games, this has changed: No longer is the Plinth Prize given for academic perfection, but rather for increasing the viewership of the dying Hunger Games.
This simple setup endears us to Coriolenus. Despite the famous name, being an orphan has a cost. Coriolenus and Tigris (Hunter Schaffer) are on the verge of being kicked out of the family mansion, with a senile Grandmother to take care of and little food available to them. The opening scene has Tigris give Coriolenus an old shirt modified to look like a dress shirt: secretly bleached and with buttons made of bathroom tiles. The pressure for Coriolenus to secure the Plinth prize is immense, and compared to his rich, snobby classmates, Coriolenus deserves the award. And for the next two and a half hours, we watch as his attempts to gain fame in the capitol steal him of his empathy and humanity, until he is merely a shell of a man in a broken society.
This story may be the strongest element of this film. I could praise every other element of The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (and I will), but it’s this central story that has gripped me unlike anything since Oppenheimer this year. It’s a pointed criticism of an audience that sees themselves as the good guys, yet still aspire to climb within a society that exists off of injustice. We are Coriolenus, happy to live in a broken society that treats humans far away from us as disposable, so long as we come out on top. The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is prophetic, calling out our self-centered nature and begging for change. The Hunger Games hasn’t lost its thematic bite - and that’s a magical thing for a blockbuster to do in 2023.
Outside of the story, there are a lot of other elements that help The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes feel like a momentous blockbuster. Firstly, it needs to be said that every performance in this film rules. Tom Blyth is phenomenal as Coriolenus Snow, so effortlessly charming that you become lulled into the trap of trusting Coriolenus to do the right thing. Hunter Schaffer is great in the supporting role of Tigris - she brings a warm presence to this cold capitol that it makes you believe there is something worth fighting for here. Peter Dinklage may be slightly typecast as Dean Casca Highbottom, but his ending monologue in the film changes him from a spiteful drunk to a guilt-ridden man attempting to right his wrongs. Viola Davis is a scene stealer as Dr. Volumnia Gaul - every line delivery is laced with poison, and her smile makes it completely uneasy. And of course, there’s Rachel Zegler as the songbird herself, Lucy Gray Bard. Lucy Gray Bard is the co-lead of the film, a singer/songwriter reaped for the games from District 12, and the mentee of Coriolenus Snow. And Zegler brings everything to this role - mystery, warmth, distance, and most importantly, vulnerability. Zegler’s performance alone is worth the price of admission for this 162 minute film.
The next major success of The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is it’s editing and cinematography. This year has been pretty rough for blockbusters - outside of Oppenheimer & Barbie, there have been more duds at the box office than ever before. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, The Flash, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, Ant Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, and The Marvels have all dropped this year to poor box-offices. And despite these high budgets, none of these flops have looked “cinematic”. I liked Dial of Destiny, but it is a major visual downgrade for the series. I didn’t like Quantumania, and it’s computer generated settings all looked like goop. The Flash has entire action sequences that seem… plastic-ky. Those action sequences aren’t verisimilitudinous - I don’t believe for 1 second that any of it is happening, because it all looks weightless. And while Barbie and Oppenheimer are 2 fantastic films, they don’t have the action choreography I typically look for in a blockbuster. And here to fill that hole is The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes.
Whether it’s the sequences within the arena or a simple conversation, the film is shot for the big screen. I adore the sequences within the arena, and especially the smaller, quieter ones. They feel big and tangible. There is a forest sequence that is reminiscent of No Time To Die, and I appreciate the wider, more isolated shots that accentuate the environment our characters are in. The set design sells this world, with technology that feels very retro-present. The drones are just like drones in the present day, but the televisions are all 1940’s. The fashion is formally timeless - it feels like its roots are in the mid 1900’s, and yet familiar to a preppy school. The film takes you into this world and envelopes you, and that's magical.
Of course, it’s not a perfect movie. I am of the belief that The Hunger Games as a series may be the most “accurately” adapted movies, to their success and detriment. And thats even truer here. You can tell that the creatives had a discussion about whether to split The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes into 2 parts, and while it is the correct decision to keep it together, it does come at the cost of time. This film is 2 hours and 42 minutes long. Even by blockbuster standards, it’s long. And I can’t help but feel that the film could have benefitted from having an additional 10-15 minutes to develop the third act completely. The films climax is moderately disorienting, and leaves a bit to the audience to puzzle together. And while I appreciate the trust being given to the audience, and the staying power bestowed upon the film through this method, it does come at a cost.
Overall, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a phenomenal piece of art, and a very good film. Its story is likely better in the book, but its filmic adaptation does a great job of showcasing what film can do: engross you in a story with pitch perfect performances and a detailed world you want to live in.