The Hunger Games trilogy and its fellow YA dystopian series all seem to be a distant memory. The genre has lain stagnant since the last installment of The Hunger Games in 2015 and it was doubtful if the category would or could ever be revived. The controversey of spin-offs and resurrections meant many wanted this franchise to be left to rest: better to have no content at all than bad content.
However, 2020 saw the publishing of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins. Inevitably, another film in The Hunger Games franchise was coming.
Now that it’s released, it’s safe to say the concerns of revival were somewhat justified. Songbirds and Snakes isn’t a half bad film, but it does not have that groundedness of the original trilogy. Despite this, it was still a fun watch. This was largely thanks to the cast and Suzanne Collins world-building.
Panem today, Panem tomorrow… Panem in the past
Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) was the girl tribute for District 12 in the 10th annual Hunger Games, and she refused to go out without a bang. Similarly to fan-favourite Katniss from the original trilogy, her reaping was a spectacle related quite closely to the film’s title. It also marked the beginning of the Games transformation into how we recognise it from before, with Lucy Gray causing waves just like her future counterpart.
However, unlike Katniss, Lucy Gray is not the films focus. Songbirds and Snakes is a prequel with a purpose; it’s the origin story of President Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth). The book and the film showed his descent into villiany with three parts; The Mentor, The Prize, and The Peacekeeper.
These parts were divided with a literal harshness that felt incredibly clunky. A quick dart to a black screen with the franchise font was really unimmersive and did not provide any structure in the film. Freeflowing would’ve worked better; a larger improvement would’ve been more than one film.
517 pages were condensed into a little over two and a half hours. Frankly, this was not enough time to include Songbirds and Snakes‘s neccessary background detail and accurately develop Snow’s corruption. The time constraint was especially felt in The Mentor.
An impovershed Capitol, a starved Snow, and a bunch of characters with familiar surnames but completely unknown to the audience were chucked into the frame. Dialogue that was a little on the nose was used to quickly explain these events and these people. Whilst the attempt to avoid wasting time was appreciated, it resulted in extreme simplicty that was less succinct and more cheesy.
Performing and performers
The scene stealer was Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman), Panem weatherman, magician and first ever host of The Hunger Games. His ludicurous commentary had the theatre creased over. Digs at mentors, tributes, and just his dialogue in general was nearly always comedic relief. It was a stellar example of how comedic relief is supposed to be done: the audience was enjoying him when he was there, but he wasn’t important enough to ponder when not present. Schwartzman gave just the right amount of charisma and idiocy appropriate for Ceaser Flickerman’s predacessor.
As in the book, Lucy Gray’s explosion into song came across as a little awkward. However, the film dragged the scene out and made it weird rather than fascinating. Her song only had the desired effect upon reflection, once The Peacekeeper act had started. This was at the fault of pacing and writing, and not of Zegler.
Her portrayal of Lucy Gray is, in her own words at the premiere, “a performer forced to fight” who contrasts with wallflower Katniss. The singing, twirling, and charm is all a part of Lucy Gray. Zegler’s role of Maria in Spielberg’s West Side Story prepared her well, ensuring the theatrical nature of her character is portrayed beautifully. Her country Appalachian accent may have been a little strange on the ears, but it is loyal to the book.
Equally captivating is Blyth’s portrayal as Snow. The novel follows Snow, allowing us into his inner thinking and motivations whereas the film uses Blyth’s subtle motions to convey Snow’s growing obsession and cruelty. Blyth shows the younger Snows strategicness and cleverness wonderfully, manipulating the audience as well as the characters. Blyth delivers an accurate and dazzling performance that shows the nuance and history of Snow.
The Capitol- home sweet home?
The authentic use of film in the first movie gave that sense of reality anad ruggedness useful for dystopian films. Songbird and Snakes however, despite being set further in the past and having a retro-future aesthetic, felt digitised- detrimentaly.
The CGI wasn’t horrid, but neither did it feel real. The use of physical sets is what really made the film. The arena, the light flooding it and the dust skirting around it, was glorious. District 12 and the Capitol also benefitted from tangible sets and locations. It did feel like the beginnings of the Panem we recognise.
Beginnings were explored in other ways, too. Songs and symbols within the film rang bells of the future. Externally, however, Songbirds and Snakes‘s score was delicious. James Newton Howard, who composed the original trilogy was warmly welcomed back by audiences with wide open arms.
The film did feel like a homecoming. With the original film releaed in 2012, Songbirds and Snakes was never likely to capture the essence of The Hunger Games trilogy. Filmmaking has evolved and the story, whilst set in the same world, has a different premise.
With its setbacks and forthcomings, Songbirds and Snakes is a decent film. It was sombre, silly, and succintly delivered the origins of President Snow. It may not have been done to the highest quality, but it was still hugely enjoyable.
Feature image credit: Lionsgate