On one hand, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a story that didn’t need to be told. Like most prequels, especially those featuring an established character’s early days, it has the insurmountable task of providing an engaging, suspenseful story even though the ultimate outcome is a foregone conclusion.
In this case, it’s President Snow, the primary antagonist played by Donald Sutherland in the original Hunger Games trilogy. Songbirds and Snakes takes place 64 years earlier, when Snow (Tom Blyth) is an ambitious-but-impoverished student living in Panem’s capitol trying to win the school’s cash prize as the mentor to one of the “tributes” selected for this year’s Hunger Games. Snow is assigned to represent Lucy Grey (Rachel Zegler), a feisty songbird from District 12 who doesn’t appear to be much of a fighter, but ends up being popular with TV viewers.
For those unaware (who never saw the other films or read the books), Panem is a futuristic dystopia consisting of 12 districts and the Hunger Games is an annual event where young people are chosen (against their will) from each district to enter an arena and fight to the death until one remains. It is televised like a sports event/game show to placate the masses. I mention this because Songbirds & Snakes occasionally operates on the conceit that the audience is already familiar with the world created by Suzanne Collins.
On the other hand, it’s newcomers who might get the most out of this film. With no familiarity or basis for comparison, the narrative is engaging enough on its own terms…once it gets going, that is. Things are pretty pokey during the first act, but the action ramps-up considerably once the Games begin, sequences which are both violent and suspenseful and accompanied by amusing play-by-play commentary from obnoxious host Lucky Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman).
The final act suffers from convoluted plot turns centered around District 12 rebels and a pace that feels kinda sleepy compared to all the tournament mayhem. And for those who are familiar with the books and films, there aren’t any surprises related to the main character. Since we already know Snow’s destiny, we’re just watching how it begins to unfold, much like Annakin’s descent to the dark side in the Star Wars prequels…interesting, perhaps, but not particularly revelatory.
But despite running much longer than necessary, Songbirds & Snakes is probably the best Hunger Games film since the first one. It boasts earnest performances and a suitably bleak tone (save for a great running gag with malfunctioning drones). At the very least, the film tells a complete story that doesn’t require seeing or reading anything else first.
PREDATOR OR PREY: MAKING THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS AND SNAKES - A comprehensive 8-part, 2 ½ hour documentary covering nearly every aspect of the film.
AUDIO COMMENTARY - By director Francis Lawrense & producer Nina Jacobson.
SONG - “The Hanging Tree,” by Rachel Zegler.
A LETTER TO THE FANS - By Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins.
BLU-RAY, DVD & DIGITAL COPIES