The Hunger Games added a new film to its franchise with the premiere of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. The movie depicts President Snow’s backstory, along with the events that led to his rise to power. 

Though I have not read the novel, I’m a huge fan of the original movies and after viewing a large amount of online discourse surrounding the movie, I was very curious as to what the prequel would entail. 

I decided to head to a local theater to check it out myself, and was able to identify the film’s strengths and weaknesses. 

Photo contributed from @songbirdsandsnakes on Instagram.

The film revolves around Coriolanus Snow in his adolescent years. He and his classmates are each paired with a tribute to mentor for the 10th annual Hunger Games in a contest intended to increase the games’ popularity among Capitol citizens. Snow is paired with District 12’s Lucy Gray, who is immediately discounted until her singing at the Reaping sparks large attention. Snow quickly gains Lucy’s trust with unmatched dedication to the assignment, motivated by the Plinth Prize. The pair’s connection causes Snow to go to great lengths trying to ensure Gray’s survival, and the game’s aftermath leads Snow on a path from Capitol luxury to district life—testing his loyalty, morality and trustworthiness.

Ballads of Songbirds and Snakes embraces a new structure and performance elements that distinguish themselves from the franchise’s past films. The first distinct change can be seen with the film’s use of three separate parts in different settings, each with unique story arcs. The last section was especially interesting since it showed Gray’s return to district life directly after the games, which wasn’t shown much in the others.

This film also separated itself by its addition of music. Rachel Zeglers’ character Lucy Gray, the girl reaped from District 12, is a singer from a former traveling pack. Once her name is chosen she uses singing in crucial moments like the Reaping, her interview and the games’ finale, to express her emotions to the Capitol, as well as gain support from sponsors. Each song she sings adds meaning to the story. For example, after the games in District 12, Gray sings “Hanging Tree”. This song is significant as it is one of the parallels to future protagonist Katniss Everdeen.

Another moment when music is used to further the plot occurs when Snow is a peacekeeper in District 12 and is off for the night listening to Gray perform at a party. Gray sings an affectionate song about Snow. Instead of soaking in the moment of the girl he loves singing to him, he becomes distracted by a rebellious Sejeanus and leaves the party to follow him. This moment foreshadows the plot’s ending and demonstrates that Snow’s desire for power is greater than his desire for love. 

Personally, I really enjoyed these musical moments. While this was a new direction for The Hunger Games Movies, Zegler sounded great and her songs added power and vulnerability to Gray. 

Zegler described her character best in an interview with TIME, saying, “Lucy Gray is a performer forced to fight and Katniss is a fighter forced to perform.”

The film was cast perfectly with the lead’s exceptional performances portraying complex themes. It featured new talents like Zegler, who made her debut back in 2021, starring in the film adaptation of Musical West Side Story directed by Steven Speilberg. Actors Tom Blyth (Coriolanus Snow) and Josh Andrés Rivera (Sejeanus Plinth) also delivered memorable performances. 

Blyth portrayed young Snow very well and he and Zegler had great chemistry that made the dystopian couples’ shocking ending in the woods all the more eerie. The film also brought back beloved Hollywood names like Viola Davis as she embraced a darker role playing the intensely evil Dr. Gaul, who persistently worked to bring young Snow away from the light. 

Opposingly, Euphorias’ Hunter Schafer’s character, Tigres Snow, acted as one of the few characters with refreshing moral clarity. Her character had one of the most impactful lines in the entire film that fully summed Snow’s descent into darkness. At the start of the film, Tigres warns her cousin Snow not to follow his father’s footsteps, remembering his hateful eyes. At the film’s chilling conclusion, when Snow returns to the Capitol he asks Tigres how he looks. Tigres replies with the impactful line, “You look just like your father Coriolanus.” 

This conversation also marks the first time Tigres addresses her cousin by his full name, rather than using his childhood nickname, Coryo, which perfectly symbolizes the newfound disagreement and distance between them. My only complaint about Schafer’s performance is that she wasn’t in the film longer.   

Now, it wouldn’t be a Hunger Games film without precise social and political commentary. Each Panem piece written by Suzanne Collins is incredibly nuanced and this film is no exception. She uses this film to portray how suffering can become accepted in society and how power can corrupt. 

This theme is highlighted when the game maker explains to the mentors, “Your role is to turn these children into spectacles, not survivors.” 

Again, she explores themes of exploitation and classism, as young Snow lacks his Capitol peers’ established wealth, and as the district’s struggle with fewer resources and liberties than those living in the Capitol. 

Finally, a moving moment occurs when a tribute from District 11 rips down a Panem flag during the games and uses it to respectfully cover his fallen peers. This moment elicits a large reaction from the Capitol viewers tuning into the Games, and is infuriating as they show more outrage for the flag than the children affected in the arena. Moments like these make the film feel less futuristic and removed from the current day in a world full of social media and news that jarringly shows both society’s elites/celebrities living in privilege, versus those in poverty, danger or oppression. 

These scenes are partly why the film was difficult to get through, regardless of the film’s overall fantastic storytelling, soundtrack and acting. As a big fan of the original movies, I went into the theater aware that these films are less than light hearted. However, I still left feeling as though this prequel was much darker and featured more violence than the other films. 

The first Hunger Games movie showed tragic events and a deadly game but ended with  signs of hope as Peeta and Katniss disrupt the system and both make it out alive, marking the first game with two survivors. Catching Fire ends on a similar note. Throughout the movie there are many devastating moments of struggle, but there are also moments of bonding and relief. At the end, Katniss makes it out of the games, the rebels end the Hunger Games early, leaving the audience with a sliver of hope. And finally, at the end of Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2, the Hunger Games have ended for good, the oppressive Panem systems have been replaced and Katniss and Peeta end up together, finally securing a life of safety and family. 

In this film, there is no optimistic ending. Chances of the Hunger Games ending are gone as Snow’s strategies of repopularizing them proved massively successful. It is unclear by the end if Lucy Gray has survived, as well. The film was also set at the 10th Hunger Games, meaning we don’t meet Katniss Everdeen until 64 years later. Thus, change is not right around the corner and oppression will not end for several decades—another grim note. 

These revelations make the Capitol’s unraveling all the more powerful in future movies, but end the current film on quite a depressing note. All these factors made me leave my AMC with mixed feelings. Many people find stories without a happy ending extremely compelling; on a storytelling level, it was very thought-provoking and conceptually interesting. But as a viewer who doesn’t indulge in intense, or gory media often, I realized I was hoping for a more balanced ending with ups and downs, rather than a gradual downward spiral where power prevails completely.

In most respects, Collins delivered. Her plotlines and dialogue showcased once again her talented worldbuilding skills. This film has received mass praise since its release, however, I may not be the intended audience. As a dark film that shows so much oppression, suffering and violence towards children, the film as a whole was a lot to stomach without any silver linings.

With a wide range of audience reactions, the newest addition to the Hunger Games movie franchise is still drawing audiences to theaters. Go check it out and decide for yourself if it lives up to the films that started it all. 

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (2023) Official Trailer 2