Stream It Or Skip It: ‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ on Starz, a late-arriving prequel that turned out to be a surprise hit (2024)

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The Hunger Games: The Ballad Of Songbirds & Snakes

  • Stream It Or Skip It: ‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ on Starz, a late-arriving prequel that turned out to be a surprise hit (1)
  • Stream It Or Skip It: ‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ on Starz, a late-arriving prequel that turned out to be a surprise hit (2)

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The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (now streaming on Starz) taps into the hottest trend of 2012: adaptations of YA novel series. Like The Twilight Saga and Harry Potter before it, the Hunger Games franchise was a huge hit in both formats, with the books selling jillions for author Suzanne Collins and the movies making a massive international star out of Jennifer Lawrence. And just when we thought it was all over and we didn’t have to remember what things like “reaping day” and “jabberjay” mean, in 2020 Collins released Ballad, a prequel, all but guaranteeing the eventuality of this movie. Since the story’s set 64 years prior to the first movie, that means Lawrence and the birth-of-a-hero fable are out, replaced the birth-of-a-villain origin story of President Coriolanus Snow, previously played by Donald Sutherland, now played as a young man by relative newcomer Tom Blyth. Rachel Zegler (West Side Story) co-stars, with supporting turns from Viola Davis, Jason Schwartzman and Peter Dinklage; Francis Lawrence, who helmed three earlier Hunger Gameses, returns to direct, and hopefully well enough to compel us to care about what happens. But he had his work cut out for him.


The Gist: Surely you haven’t forgotten the cliches of this dystopian reality that Jennifer Lawrence almost made palatable: IN A WORLD where the haves and have-nots really really hate each other on a postapocalyptic alt-Earth exists a state known as Panem. The rich rule the Capitol, and they cruelly oppress the peoples of a dozen downtrodden surrounding districts; you can tell the haves by their patently ridiculous gaudy garb and clownish hairstyles, and the have-nots by their patently ridiculous quasi-Little House on the Prairie outfits and dirty faces. Every year, the creeps in charge pluck two teens from each district to participate in the Hunger Games, an utterly barbaric one-person-left-standing battle-to-the-death that’s a smash TV hit and, of course, a symbolic power play underscoring who’s in charge around here.

The bulk of THG: TBOSAS takes place 10 years after the Hunger Games began. TV ratings for the games are down, possibly because it’s a vile spectacle, possibly because the host, Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman (Schwartzman), is an uberputz with a mustache you just want to slap off his lip. And here we find Coriolanus Snow (Lythe), a teen from a once-prominent family that’s now quietly fallen into poverty. Coryo lives with his closest confidant, his cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer), and their Grandma’am (Fionnula Flanagan), who put on airs of still having money even when they’re living in squalor. Coryo’s on the verge of graduating from Snob City High School and earning a scholarship that he hopes to use to fund his college education and restore his family’s status. But that doesn’t happen. Nope. Instead, he finds out he’s gonna be a mentor to one of the Hunger Games participants, and the penisface in charge of this, Casca Highbottom (Dinklage), has rigged the odds very much not in Coryo’s favor by saddling him with an inferior contestant.

And here we meet that contestant, Lucy Gray Baird (Zegler) of District 12 (yes, the same district as J-Law’s character, ye collators of Easter eggs). On Reaping Day, when Hunger Gamers are selected, Lucy Gray drops a snake down the dress of the mayor’s daughter, takes the stage to sing a rousing song and yells “YOU CAN KISS MY ASS!” into the microphone, and somehow gets away with it. What kind of half-assed fascist state is this anyway? Shouldn’t they be tossing her in a gulag pit o’ hell for that? Lucy Gray may be physically small and lack killer instinct, but at least she has spirit, enough to give Coryo hope that she might somehow win the Hunger Games, opening the door for his path to a brighter future. Coryo bends the rules by befriending Lucy Gray, giving her rat poison to use during the competition and telling her she can win the hearts of the people if she sings for the TV cameras. It’s the only, only, only way she can survive, the movie insists, even though it never in a million years would cast a rising star like Zegler in the role just to turn her into carrion to be pecked at by crows.

Coryo’s wily strategies earn the attention of the Hunger Games creator, a mad-scientist loon with two different-colored eyes named Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Davis). She solicits improvements on the games from Coryo, and actually implements them, e.g., allowing mentors to use drones to airdrop water, food and other things to benefit their contestants. One look at the bloodthirsty leading competitors and it’s pretty obvious that Lucy Gray is doomed. DOOOOOOOOOMED. Unless she’s not! Especially since there’s a less-than-half-assed love story between Coryo and Lucy Gray that the movie might almost show interest in. And also because the Hunger Games part is just the second act of the movie, followed by a third one proving that a bunch of boring stuff can happen after the somewhat exciting stuff we’ve seen already in the other movies. Hey, at least it’s not the same old movie again, right?

Stream It Or Skip It: ‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ on Starz, a late-arriving prequel that turned out to be a surprise hit (3)

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Harry Potter prequel spinoff Fantastic Beasts is even more unnecessary than THG: TBOSAS. Joker and the Star Wars prequel trilogy backtracked to tell similar villain origin stories. And you still can’t talk Hunger Games without mentioning its predecessors, Battle Royale and The Running Man.

Performance Worth Watching: Let’s hope THG: TBOSAS gives Blyth a nice jumping-off point for his career, since he proves himself at least moderately charismatic in the face of some mediocre material.

Memorable Dialogue: Coryo’s pal Plinth (Josh Andres Rivera) inspires an Ironic Line-Reading:

Plinth, sarcastically: You’re quite the rebel.

Coryo: Oh yeah. I’m bad news.

Sex and Skin: None, although we get a swimmin’-down-at-the-water-hole scene in which we learn that the residents of District 12 apparently crochet their own underwear.

Stream It Or Skip It: ‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ on Starz, a late-arriving prequel that turned out to be a surprise hit (4)

Our Take: Note of interest for anyone considering firing this one up: take the “ballad” part of the title seriously. A notable chunk of this movie’s 157 minutes is consumed by musical interludes, apparently because you don’t cast a rising star like Zegler in the role just to not have her showcase her singing talents so often that the movie bloats to wearisome length. A point arrived about two-thirds through where a few notes from the musical score elicited groans: Not again. Please. Which isn’t to dismiss Zegler’s efforts; her singing voice is hearty and passionate. But the film’s insistence upon shoehorning songs into the narrative brings us out of this reasonably immersive and well-constructed world to ask why. Sure, music keeps the spirits of the oppressed alive, but a half-dozen songs tortured until their earnesty explodes at us in syrupy spurts of thematic overstatement? Well, it’s a bit much.

While we’re at a remove from the narrative, we may also ask why this story needed to be told in the first place. Was Snow such a compelling figure that his origin demanded a deep dive? Were fans clamoring for an expanded view of the Panem setting? Speaking as someone who watched all the previous films out of professional obligation – and even enjoyed a couple of them – but was repelled by Collins’ decidedly YA writing style, I can’t answer that. But it’s tough to argue for the necessity of this story, and easier to see it as an attempt to revive a familiar franchise for a quick and easy profit (some basic math: $100 million budget, $337 million box gross), and to test the waters for further franchise expansion. Creatives have once again been trumped by bean-counters.

As for the movie as it stands? It’s fine, more of the same stiff recitations of gooey wads of exposition, more of the same sense of self-importance, more of the same ridiculous sci-fi names and ridiculous sci-fi costumes and ridiculous sci-fi hair (nobody is saved from looking silly here, even the mighty Davis, which borders on criminal). The tone is dry and dreary, which Blyth just barely overcomes in order to stir a little subtext about his character’s eventual turn towards evil; Zegler is asked to lean heavily into an overcooked spunky rebelliousness that feels contrived, and her here-today-gone-tomorrow-back-on-Wednesday quasi-Southern accent doesn’t help.

Like the previous films, Ballad sanitizes its brutality for a PG-13 rating and diminishes the story’s sense of high-stakes survive-or-die suspense, and Francis Lawrence’s approach to action sequences is bland and uninspired, a reflection of the film’s generic visual aesthetic. The casting of Davis, Dinklage and Schwartzman feels calculated to spruce up a joyless and dreary text; the utterly expendable Lucy Gray-Coryo romance never takes root, and feels like little more than fulfillment of Hunger Games formula; the screenplay’s attempt to make the Games themselves a hurdle instead comprising the structural basis of the plot results in narrative bloat and a third act that feels like an extended deflation. The most intriguing subtext is decidedly meta-, in the sense that executives and marketers and accountants seemingly thought the overall concept could overcome its more generic sensibilities and thrive without Jennifer Lawrence’s talent and star power. Nope! Sorry!

Our Call: One of the key components of this story is the Panem citizens’ flagging interest in the Hunger Games, and the irony is, interest in Hunger Games movies is definitely flagging in our own reality in 2024. SKIP IT.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


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Stream It Or Skip It: ‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ on Starz, a late-arriving prequel that turned out to be a surprise hit (2024)
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