A Hunger Games prequel may seem to some about as enticing as a Game of Thrones prequel once did. Yet The House of the Dragon turned out surprisingly well, and The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is… adequate. Longer and more convoluted than the previous installments, it may surprise viewers who didn’t read the book when its Hunger Games battle ends and on-screen titles promptly reveal that we’re only two-thirds of the way through the runtime. Songbirds & Snakes aspires to the scope of Gone With the Wind but feels like an Earthbound version of the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy in one movie.
Next of Anakin
Darth Vader, it must be said, was more interesting than President Coriolanus Snow, whose major memorable characteristics were that he loved roses and was played by Donald Sutherland. Tom Blyth, cast as his younger incarnation, looks more like early-career Richard E. Grant than a Sutherland, but casting for ability is more important than getting a look-alike. And Blyth has the goods, playing young Snow as a social chameleon with high aspirations and powerful enemies. Through merit, he has earned perfect grades; through his father’s old grudges, he has ensured that certain people want to hold him down regardless. Blyth is an expert at sucking up Snow’s feelings until he can’t, turning stone cold when he needs to, and paying the emotional toll later like it’s a credit card bill for the soul.
Supposedly the top contender for a major scholarship that’s his only shot at college, Snow is shocked to hear that in fact, no prize is to be given this year, the tenth of the Hunger Games. Instead, all the top scholarship contenders will have to mentor a Hunger Games contestant, with the goal of making them compelling for TV. Ratings are down for this more stripped-down version than we’re used to seeing, and perhaps the smartest kids in the Capital can figure out how to turn that around. Snow lucks out in this regard, getting teamed with Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), who sings a defiant song directly into the cameras after being selected and dropping a snake down her rival’s dress.
Lucy ‘n’ This Guy’s No Diamond
Snow, who tries to act like a rich kid while being not entirely secretly poor, gets advised by his sister to connect with Lucy Gray on that personal level of shared struggle. He does, and because she’s, well, Rachel Zegler, he can’t help developing feelings for her. Since we know he eventually becomes the world’s biggest bastard, something will have to happen to make this budding relationship go bad. But what? The story, which hews closely to the book, keeps throwing out possibility after possibility, keeping non-readers guessing as to the how and the why.
Unsurprisingly, Zegler gets lots of opportunities to sing; surprisingly, she’s as adept with country and bluegrass as she was with show tunes in West Side Story. Her Southern accent takes getting used to — she lives in District 12, which is basically West Virginia, all coal mines and country music, but belongs to a gypsy-like group of traveling musicians. Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss, from the same area decades later, never sounded especially Southern, but maybe in this world it’s only the travelers who talk that way.
Casting a Shadow
Most every major player seems cast based upon their best-known recent roles, save maybe Blyth, who’s a relative newcomer. Zegler is countrified Maria from West Side Story; Viola Davis, as the madwoman running the Games, is an over-the-top Amanda Waller; Peter Dinklage, as the Games’ credited inventor, drinks liquid drugs because he knows too many things, a la Tyrion. And Burn Gorman, a character actor you may know from Pacific Rim, once again puts on his best evil ventriloquist dummy face to play a military fascist. More inspired is Jason Schwartzman as the presumed father of Stanley Tucci’s smarmy host Caesar Flickerman –as a weatherman who becomes the first on-camera host, he finds his sleazy feet with aplomb.
Poland stands in for the nation of Panem this time and gives the proceedings a very different social-critique vibe. Prior Hunger Games movies felt like satires of our own one-per-centers, but this version looks more like North Korea or similar dictatorial states that put all their money into large buildings and statues and none into feeding the people. The implied suggestion is that exploitative entertainment is all it takes to turn a communist dystopia into a capitalist one. There’s more to explore in this world than just the Games, and it’s nice to have the primary perspective not be a direct contestant for once.
Battle Royale With Cheese
Like in the Fantastic Beasts movies, however, there’s a temptation to put too much world-building in at the expense of a through-line. Director Francis Lawrence, seemingly feeling burned by splitting Mockingjay in half, tries to cram everything from the book into 157 minutes. One hates to even suggest further franchise expansion, but this probably should have been a premium cable miniseries. It’s a lot, with more non-ending endings than The Lord of the Rings.
The stripped-down Games initially make for better action than the others by simply placing kids in a sports arena with weapons. After the initial barrage, though, they do a lot of hiding the rest of the time, which runs the risk of making the audience as impatient as the Games-masters. Accelerating the events involves some hilariously obvious payoffs to certain plot points that feel awfully convenient for our anti-hero Mr. Snow. (Let’s just say the wildlife on Panem can be quite specific in its features.)
Where to Begin?
Mercifully, most of the Easter egg references to previous movies arrive as conversational asides during the film’s final third. Nonetheless, Blyth is a movie star in the making, Zegler is already there, and they carry us through all the convolutions. The larger points Lawrence and author Suzanne Collins seem to want to make about human nature get a bit lost in the crush.
If you liked the other Hunger Games movies okay, then consider this one okay too. Better than it ought to be, yet still significantly short of greatness, it might have made a superior start to a saga if we didn’t already have the finish.
The Hunger Games: The Battle of Songbirds & Snakes opens Nov. 17 in theaters.