‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad Of Songbirds & Snakes’ Review: A Tale Of Power And Uncertainty In Pre-Katniss Panem

The book The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, written by Suzanne Collins, has been adapted for the screen by director Francis Lawrence, alongside screenwriters Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt. The film delves into the chillingly formative years of Panem, a society not yet inured to the brutality of its central spectacle. This prequel, starkly contrasting its YA predecessors, morphs into a harrowing adult political thriller, unraveling the genesis of the Hunger Games with a disturbingly poignant lens — that is, when it can get out of its own way.

The film stars Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Viola Davis, Peter Dinklage, Jason Schwartzman and Hunter Schafer.

More from Deadline

The film starts during the dark days before the first Hunger Games. Two children, Coriolanus (Dexter Sol Ansell) and Tigris (Rosa Gotzler) are running for their lives in a snowy Panem. They arrive at the home of their grandmother and receive news that Coriolanus’ father has died in district 12. Years later as a young man (this time played by Tom Blyth), Coriolanus aims to become president with his cousin Tigres (Schafer) as his confidant. Volumnia Gaul (Davis) is the President, and introduces the capitol kids to game-maker Dean Casca Highbottom (Dinklage), who gives the rules for the 10th Hunger Games, which are in peril because no one is watching and are on the verge of being canceled.

Each of the 24 top prospects will receive a tribute, and Coriolanus is assigned to Lucy Gray (Zegler), a district 12 singer and troublemaker. During the reaping ceremony, she begins to sing, which draws shock and awe from those in the capitol.

Coriolanus meets Lucy at the station for the first time and they surprisingly get along as she buys into his charms and finds they are kindred spirits. He climbs into the transport with the tributes who threaten to kill him, but he ends up dumped in a zoo with them. Lucky Flickerman (Schwartzman) is there filming and he spots Coriolanus and Lucy together. They decide to play up the persona to Panem and put on a show for the camera, so Lucy has a fighting chance at winning. Highbottom wants to disqualify Snow as a mentor for his antics, but Gaul loves his idea of getting closer to the tribute. This causes the President to request a proposal from Coriolanus as a way to improve the games.

Now with his ideas underway, this is where fans see how the young man became the architect of the games in which Katniss Everdeen participated.

The prequel explores a Panem teetering on the edge of moral ambiguity, not yet entirely desensitized to the grotesque pageantry of the games. The Hunger Games has always been a reflection on media consumption and the indoctrination of society to accepting death as punishment, particularly how the affluent relish in the orchestrated downfall of the poor. This theme resonates uncomfortably in our contemporary world, mirroring our own struggles with media sensationalism and class divides.

The narrative here takes a darker, more violent path than the original trilogy, eschewing teenage angst in favor or a gripping tale of political intrigue and calculation. Central to this story is the young Coriolanus, played with a chillingly dispassionate cunning — at least in the Songbirds & Snakes book. The film intricately traces his journey from a mere participant to the mastermind behind the barbaric Hunger Games. Yet, it is in its attempt to humanize him where the film falters. Unlike the book’s portrayal of Coriolanus as a conniving narcissist, the film molds his decisions with an uncharacteristic hesitancy and lack of confidence, an unnecessary and confusing attempt to garner sympathy for a notoriously ruthless character. Why make this change? Some people are just evil no matter what.

The film’s standout performance comes from Davis as Gaul, who chews every scene with the malevolent presence of her character. Zegler, fresh from West Side Story, showcases her remarkable singing range, bringing a distinct tone and depth to her role, while the inclusion of a young Tigris injects a much-needed warmth into the film’s often bleak atmosphere. These performances play into Trish Summerville’s costume design as a visual feast, maintaining the franchise’s legacy while envisioning a past even more opulent and expansive. The sets, as ever, are integral to the franchise’s appeal, rendering the grandeur and decay of Panem.

The ultimate issue with Songbirds & Snakes is the struggle with its pacing, particularly in the third act, where a jarring shift in tone feels like a leap into an entirely different film. It twists itself into knots trying to keep Coriolanus on the audience’s good side. This sudden change seems more geared towards setting up future sequels than serving the story at hand. The result is a narrative that, while interesting for its portrayal of Panem’s early days, often feels at odds with itself.

In the end, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a film of contrasts — visually stunning yet narratively uneven, it offers a fascinating glimpse into the origins of Panem, but not without stumbling over its own ambitious intentions. Thankfully, there is enough action and suspense to tolerate the 2 hour and 40 minute runtime. Sheesh.

Title: The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes
Release date: November 17, 2023
Distributor: Lionsgate
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenwriters: Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt
Cast: Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Viola Davis, Peter Dinklage, Jason Schwartzman, Hunter Schafer
Rating: PG-13
Running time: 2 hr 38 min

Sign up for Deadline's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.