It’s been eight years since the release of the last Hunger Games film, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2, which means enough time has passed that it feels appropriate to return to the well that produced big box-office dollars for Lionsgate, and made star Jennifer Lawrence a household name.
It also helps that author Suzanne Collins released a prequel novel in 2020, The Hunger Games: The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes, which explores the young adult life of Coriolanus Snow, the tyrannical president of Panem played by Donald Sutherland in the prior (though chronologically later) films.
There is something comforting about slipping back into the world of Panem, dystopian and brutal as it is, especially in the capable hands of director Francis Lawrence, who helmed three out of four Hunger Games films: Catching Fire and both Mockingjay installments. He is a true craftsman and audacious visual stylist, bringing a Cold War Soviet flair to the Panem of 64 years before Katniss Everdeen.
The Ballad of Songbirds And Snakes invites viewers to learn more about the background of Coriolanus, played here by Tom Blyth, and to witness the early days of the Hunger Games, in which the game-makers figure out how to wield the spectacle of children killing each other for sport as a tool of propaganda.
Though the Hunger Games has already been happening for 10 years in the era of Songbirds And Snakes, the film follows the addition of mentors for the young tributes, here culled from the top students at a wealthy academy in the capitol.
Coriolanus is the orphan scion of an aristocratic family who lost everything in the war: he lives in a crumbling, formerly spectacular apartment with his declining grandmother and his cousin Tigris, played by a wonderful Hunter Schafer, who is unfortunately relegated to the house for almost the entire movie.
Corio, as he’s nicknamed, strives to be the best and keep up appearances; when a cash prize is on the line for being the best mentor, and drawing attention back to the Hunger Games, he throws himself into the task, gaining the trust of his tribute, a fiery, spirited young woman from District 12, a folksy songstress named Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler).
The film is essentially the Star Wars prequels of the Hunger Games world, as we watch Coriolanus turn from an idealistic young man to a power-hungry sadist, in the same way we watched Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader.
The problem? George Lucas took three movies to show us Anakin’s fall into darkness. Lawrence, and screenwriters Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt, try to do it in one overstuffed installment.
There’s one pretty good Hunger Games movie here, in the first 95 minutes. Sure, it’s a bit predictable and overwrought, but the style is great, the characters are engaging, and Viola Davis and Jason Schwartzman devilishly devour the scenery as Dr. Volumnia Gaul, Head Gamemaker, and Lucretius Lucky Flickerman, the first television host of the Games. Then Part III starts.
In 45 minutes – after we’ve watched an entire bloody Hunger Games unfold – the audience has to follow Coriolanus to District 12 where he’s banished to work as a Peacekeeper, then witness his turn from lovesick young man to right-wing Panem fascist. The character beats simply do not track, and it’s exhausting to even try and follow them.
Part III feels like a sequel movie that’s been hastily tacked on, with a distinctly different look and feel, set in the retro-industrial Appalachia of District 12, and the characters in completely different psychological mindsets. As a book adaptation, it makes sense, somewhat, but as film storytelling it does not work, and it's unfortunate that these aren’t two different movies.
The good news is that Blyth is terrific, and he delivers a star-making performance as Coriolanus. The issues with his character shifts are never about what he does onscreen, but the lack of writing, or perhaps hastily excised scenes that would have helped to understand him more.
Zegler cements her star status in a role that plays to her vocal strengths — her bluegrass performances are incredibly appealing. There’s so much that works about The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, it’s unfortunate that it’s all been crammed into one overly long film. – Katie Walsh/Tribune News Service
An overstuffed prequel