Of all the cheap, lazy ways to keep a franchise going, the most aggravating is the villain origin story. For one thing, a good villain, properly introduced, doesn’t need such a thing. And to flesh out their backstory threatens to diminish what made them compelling to begin with. The Hunger Games certainly didn’t need it because the best creation of author Suzanne Collins was heroine Katniss Everdeen, who helped establish Jennifer Lawrence as a superstar actress. Was anyone sitting around salivating at the idea of a President Snow origin story? Probably not, but with The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes we’re getting it anyway, and the result is predictably passionless and derivative, but at least it’s not harmful to the series as a whole.
This thing is pretty ridiculous, and it’s a wonder anybody wanted to adapt Collins’ 2020 novel other than to continue milking a cash cow that ran dry in 2015. The central character is a young Coriolanus Snow, played with grim authority by Donald Sutherland previously, but now by a statuesque Tom Blyth. Decades before the events of the first movie, Snow is an ambitious student from a once-powerful family, and the son of a deceased high-ranking official in Panem. The Hunger Games are still being used to punish the rebellious districts, only they’re tanking in the ratings and the head gamemaker, Dr. Volumnia Gaul, played by a scene-chewing Viola Davis in fizzy gray hair and multi-colored eyes, needs this one to be a hit. So she switches things up, forcing the Academy hopefuls to mentor the Games’ tributes. Snow is less than excited to get District 12’s utterly absurd guitar-strumming songbird, Lucy Gray Baird, played by Rachel Zegler.
Lucy Gray Barid is no Katniss Everdeen, and you realize just how uninteresting The Hunger Games is without Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. Putting on something that resembles what an extraterrestrial thinks a southern accent would sound like, Zegler is meant to carry this film in the same way Lawrence did the others but doesn’t have the natural presence or command to do it. Lucy sings her little heart out as a show of protest against the Capitol, which endears her to the viewers. It also endears her to Snow who, through a serious of lousy plot contrivances, like his beef with the Academy’s Dean Cas Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), also finds that he has enemies in powerful places.
This being the 10th annual Hunger Games, the carnival-level spectacle of latter games are gone, replaced with doomed Tributes fighting it out in a single arena with common weapons. It’s not at all compelling because the end is never in doubt, and there’s no core relationship to follow like we had with Katniss and Peeta. Worse, Lucy is barely even an active participant in her own survival. There’s not much to latch on to when it comes to Lucy. She’s boring and absurd at the same time, with it utterly unconvincing that her nomadic background, iffy use of country music, and bad outfits (one student rightfully questions if she’s some kind of a clown) would be so endearing to millions of hardened Panem citizens. It’s not Zegler’s fault, but a poor script that gives Lucy very little personality to speak of other than her ability to sing. She is a passenger in Snow’s story, which is sad given how inspiring Katniss was to so many young women. Lucy only gets an interesting aspect to her personality in the film’s final moments, when she makes a choice that makes us question everything we had seen up to that point.
Again, this is Snow’s tale, and that is part of the problem. We know where it ends up, with him a heartless, power-mad bastard ruling the Capitol and hating anyone from District 12. That journey is a violent one, full of double-crosses from the people he cares about most, shaping the ruthlessness that drives him into adulthood. But there’s very little that is surprising or informative about Snow. When the chips are down, we know the choices he will make. Once again, Blyth isn’t the problem here. There’s just an overall lack of energy and the fearlessness of the original movies is nonexistent. Other than Davis’ wickedly evil performance and Jason Schwartzman as smiley Hunger Games host, Panem weatherman, and part-time magician Lucky Flickerman (ancestor of Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman), you’ll be hard-pressed to remember any of these characters. Sorely missed is the drunken humor of Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch, because laughs are more scarce than food in this impoverished Hellhole.
The previous Hunger Games movies arrived at a time when reality TV was getting more extreme, and questions were being raised about violence as a unifying televised event. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes tries to revive those old warnings but can barely muster up the fight to do so. Even the analogy of songbirds and snakes as beauty that hides a certain danger, is beaten tired before you’ve finished saying the overlong title. At least this feels like it’s properly setting up the future authoritarian landscape that will give us Katniss Everdeen, with people (like Hunter Schafer as Tigris) and places (the Meadow) that we know to be integral. And unlike other villain-based prequels, this version of Snow isn’t being humanized to make him more relatable or sympathetic. His demise is already written in ink, and he’s just as deserving of it as ever.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes opens on November 17th.