Hunger Games' Songbirds & Snakes is a "Ballad" of loss and corruption

by Charles Gerian

“That is the sound of Snow…falling.”

Thanksgiving weekend was a surprising time for the movies- Disney’s seemingly sure-fire animated musical WISH crashed and burned with audiences and at the box office, falling in a shocking battle against week 2 of Lionsgate’s highly anticipated “Hunger Games” prequel, THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS & SNAKES which aimed to revive the decades-dormant YA franchise for a new era and Ridley Scott’s historical epic NAPOLEON, which debuted this weekend against the Disney picture.

SONGBIRDS & SNAKES has amassed a mightly $300 million foreign and domestic in its two-week release with favorable reviews from fans and critics who anticipated director Francis Lawrence’s return to Panem. Lawrence helmed the second through 4th films in the original franchise which starred Jennifer Lawrence.

SONGBIRDS & SNAKES takes audiences back 60 years before Katniss and her uprising to a post-war Panem where a young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth before he was Donald Sutherland’s villainous figure) is one of many young students tasked with helping to revive the annual Hunger Games and turn it into the spectacle it would later become.

He doesn’t expect, however, to fall in love with the young girl from Disrtict 12 who he is assigned to turn into a celebrity rather than a survivor. And their relationship will, ultimately, alter the course of history as they all know it.

Coriolanus lives in The Capitol with his cousin Tigris (“Euphoria” star Hunter Shafer) and his grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan, ABC’s “Lost”). Once an elite and noble family, the Snows have fallen on hard times all while struggling to keep up appearances among the Capitol Elite.

It is the eve of the 10th Annual Hunger Games, a nasty event where the Capitol chooses two children from each of the districts to battle to the death in a televized event as punishment for the District Uprising 13 years prior.

Snow, a senior at the Capitol’s prestigious academy, is among 24 students tasked by the Academy’s dean Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage channeling a moe depressing Tyrion Lannister) with turning The Games into an entertaining spectacle rather than just another round of bloodsport.

The students are encouraged by gamemaker Volumnia Gaul (a terrific Viola Davis) to contemplate the nature of the Hunger Games and incorporate that into a bold new vision for the annual event.

Coriolanus is assigned to be the mentor for Lucy Gray Baird (2022 WEST SIDE STORY starlet Rachel Zegler) a District 12 girl.

Sparks immediately fly, and Coriolanus is soon conflicted between his desire to restore his family name and his unexpected love for the young girl, all while his classmate Sejanus (Josh Andres Rivera), a former District resident and “new money” in the capitol, attempts to dismantle the very nature of the games.

SONGBIRDS & SNAKES adapts Suzanne Collins lengthy character study she published during the pandemic into a gripping, bleak, and emotional origin story for Snow that becomes increasingly difficult to watch the darker it gets.

Collins’ novel is condensed here by screenwriters Michael Lesslie (2015’s MACBETH) and Michael Arndt (THE FORCE AWAKENS, OBLIVION) and allows for an intriguing exploration on how “villains” are made- not born- drawing interesting parallels to the franchise hero Katniss Everdeen on how our film’s protagonist Coriolanus is molded into a spectacle of his own.

Blyth is a beautiful man, a classically trained actor with gorgeous platinum-blonde hair, it is his sweetness and desire to genuinely help Ziegler’s Lucy that immediately sells their star-crossed lover relationship to the audience (us, not the audience in the film, but aren’t we one in the same?)

Through the course of the film, Snow is- essentially- corrupted by Viola Davis’ absolutely maniacal Dr. Gaul, a character so repulsive and vile that Davis seems to have the time of her life playing with such charisma and scene-chewing you can almost see her licking her fingers after every turn in her dazzling costumes.

Comparisons have been made to the “Star Wars” prequels which tell of Anakin Skywalker’s lovelorn fall from Jedi Knight Jesus-parallel to the Sith Lord Darth Vader, and while the Star Wars prequels showed Anakin’s corruption and fall accross 3 films, Blyth’s Coriolanus falls in 3 distinct acts as he, much like the “spectacle” he forms in Lucy Gray, is molded into something he wasn’t…but something he was forced into becoming to survive.

I won’t waste time comparing the film to the book because it would be pointless, but the book paints Snow as much more of a psychopath from the get-go. The film makes a case for the sympathetic nature of his downfall, and gives Dr. Gaul parallel to the original film’s Woody Harrelson Haymitch character.

I won’t spoil the gut-wrenching climax, but the culmination of Blyth’s transformation from young Coriolanus Snow to Panem’s future ruler can best be captured in his return to The Capitol where, with a new hair-style and extravagant coat that borders between military dress and Met Gala runway, his cousin Tirgris tells him venemously: “You look just like your father”.

It’s a distressing, chilling, line that Snow simply smirks at.

Two of the film’s other knock-out assets are Josh Rivera’s Sejanus (Zie gler’s WEST SIDE STORY co-star) who wrings sympathy from the audience with every take, and Jason Schwartzman as Lucky Flickerman, a Capitol News weatherman who finds himself the first-ever television host for the games.

Schwartzman, a natural presence on his own, constantly feels like a man with a gun to his head, attempting to juggle his “real” job with selling himself as a larger-than-life entertainer for the Capitol.

Lawrence is a underrated director, having taken over the franchise after the first installment from Gary Ross to give it the distinct look of his films like 2007’s I AM LEGEND and 2005’s CONSTANTINE.

The actual “Hunger Games” aspect of the film is relatively breezy, taking up a small fraction of the film’s action, but the games here are grungier, nastier, and harder to watch than the games in the original films. The setting is a bombed-out sports arena, the tributes are sickly and dirty, fighting with rusted weapons and barbaric methods. The sleek and precise presentation of the later games is not here yet, and we see the games in their true depraved glory. It makes for a gruesome and effective portion of the movie, and our reaction as the audience is mirrored by the young students who are “mentoring” these killers.

It is interesting that the film takes steps to never “show” the audience or the people watching. The other films would frequently cut to the Districts where the games are broadcast, but in SONGBIRDS & SNAKES we are the audience both of the film and of the games.

Director Lawrence’s work in SONGBIRDS & SNAKES sees him re-team with frequent collaborator Jo Willems as his Director of Photographytaking full advantage of their on-location filming in Berlin to really mirror the dystopic post-war look of The Capitol, mirroring of course post-war Germany following World War II, allowing us to see a Panem that is very art deco and brutalist compared to the lavish extravagance the Capitol will be known for in the original series thanks to set designer Sabine Chaaf who helped bring to life the Nazi-ruled alternate history of IRON SKY and the undead “Alice in Wonderland” grunge of 2002’s RESIDENT EVIL.

Trish Summerville’s costume design here is nothing short of breathtaking, from the academy uniforms to Dr. Gaul’s alluring and shocking outfits including a breathtaking “blood-stained” white gown she is seen wearing in her laboratory. Summerville was nominated for an Oscar thanks to her work on David Fincher’s MANK in 2020 and helped dress HBO’s short-lived sci-fi series WESTWORLD in the early 2010’s.

A great film bolstered by the franchise’s reliance on getting elite actors to elevate the material with a chilling ending and some wonderful music to boot. Highly recommended.

SONGBIRDS & SNAKES is now playing in Ark City, The Hub in Tonkawa, as well as Stillwater’s AMC.