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regular-article-logo Monday, 24 June 2024

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes does not offer anything new

Directed by series regular Francis Lawrence, the film stars Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Viola Davis, Peter Dinklage and Jason Schwartzman

Chandreyee Chatterjee Calcutta Published 17.11.23, 04:49 PM
Tom Blyth as Coriolanus Snow and Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird in the film

Tom Blyth as Coriolanus Snow and Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird in the film IMDb

For most of us, The Hunger Games is that rare book-to-film series (the last two-part bloated finale apart) that did the books justice. Panem is a distant memory, the actress who played Katniss Everdeen has gone on to do many more films and win an Oscar, the Hunger Games were cancelled, and President Coriolanus Snow met a fitting end in the finale. But like ghosts from the past, they are back to haunt us — well not Katniss, she is too badass to want a return (hopefully) — and the outcome can, at best, be described as confusing.

Based on the 2020 novel of the same name by Susanna Collins, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes takes us back by 64 years, before Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen volunteers as a tribute, to the 10th Hunger Games and a teenaged Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth). It is a bold move to base a prequel on a mostly unredeemable villain, played with chilling conviction by Donald Sutherland in the earlier Hunger Games movies, and his rise to villainy. It works in parts, mostly thanks to the top-notch acting by the central characters — Snow, and the songbird, District 12 tribute Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) — and to returning director Francis Lawrence who knows the world intimately.

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But mostly it is the same old, repackaged in vintage colours and with almost zero stakes. The Capitol is still organising the Hunger Games as a symbol of punishment to the Districts for the uprising. Tributes for the Hunger Games are reaped from the Districts and thrown into the arena to kill each other for survival, except the Games are still not the elaborate hi-tech spectacles as they will be when Katniss becomes a tribute, and given that it is all about killing each other, the games are surprisingly bloodless. The brutality of the act has seemingly been glossed over for a PG-13 rating. There is, however, still a Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman replacing Stanley Tucci) hosting the games on the television. The Districts are still under a fascist regime and people in the Capitol still dress funnily.

The film, told in three parts — The Mentor, The Prize and The Peacekeeper — finds our much loathed Coriolanus Snow struggling to maintain appearances as one of the affluent people in the Capitol, when in reality there is very little left to his name after the Civil War. He is determined to win the coveted Plinth Prize and restore some of the lost glory of the Snow name. He is sure he has it in his bag when, as is wont with the powers that be in the Capitol, the rules are changed and he is saddled with mentoring one of the 24 tributes to the 10th Hunger Games. The deal is to spice up the Hunger Games to keep the TRPs high, survival of their tributes being secondary.

Thankfully for Snow, he gets Lucy Gray Baird from District 12, who can sing (parts of the film feels like a musical) and charm snakes (a reference to Snow, for sure) and people alike. Both realise they need the other to survive and do what’s necessary. Their chemistry seems too intense too soon to be believable and this is where it becomes confusing. It’s true that Lucy, Snow’s friend Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andres Rivera) and his cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer) are there to show that Snow had a humane side to him, but it is so unlikely that someone as scheming and conniving as him (Snow will cheat and kill if it means he will emerge on top) will sacrifice his ambitions to follow Lucy to District 12. And it is so hard to sympathise with Snow.

What unfolds when the film leaves the interiors of the Capitol, and gets into the surprisingly not so grimy District 12, is more believable as thirst for power and the need to survive play out through mistrust and betrayal. Kudos to the actors for keeping the audience engaged in this tale that plays out over a very long 157 minutes. If it is the sly charm of Zegler that hooks you, it is Blyth’s ability to convey the battle between conscience and cold cruelty that keeps you invested.

Because nothing else, other than Viola Davis’ campy turn as the first ‘Game Maker’ Volumina Gaul with her bloodthirst and outlandish clothes, makes much of an impact. Not even Peter Dinklage as the surly Hunger Games co-creator Casca Highbottom. The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is neither a great addition to The Hunger Games series, nor does it take away from it. It just is. And maybe it is time to retire The Hunger Games for real.

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