When The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a prequel to the ever-popular YA book series The Hunger Games, was released, it was inevitable that it would get a film adaptation. Three years later and almost a decade after the peak of the series’s popularity, this passable origin story arrives, providing a decent adventure, but not one good enough to respark the IP.
Based on the Hunger Games prequel novel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes follows Coriolanus Snow — the President of Panem in the main series — as a young adult, when he is forced to mentor the tribute from District 12, starting an unexpected romance. As far as young adult fare goes, this is pretty standard, but that’s disappointing considering that the Hunger Games movies (well, at least the first two) helped set the bar for the genre.
The first two-thirds of the film are compelling, but admittedly, they’re what you’d expect of a Hunger Games movie. It follows the same formula of the reality show circus leading into the brutal games. And given that The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is set decades before the Katniss Everdeen saga, what we see here feels much grittier and rougher, mostly for the better.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is weighed down by an ineffective third act
Granted, in the evolution of filmmaking technology we have seen in the past decade, there’s some changes in the execution. The production design is still a strength, as it does a great job of drawing us back into the world of Panem. However, the CGI use is much more obvious in this prequel than it was in previous entries — especially during the big action sequences.
However, where the movie really falls apart is its final act. The decision was made to release The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes as a single film over two-and-a-half hours long, rather than splitting it into two, and it is the final act that suffers. In trying to contain things to a (mostly) reasonable runtime, a lot of the character dynamics and decisions in the final third simply don’t make sense.
The biggest takeaway that many viewers will have from watching this is that Rachel Zegler is an absolute star. While West Side Story gave her a chance to show off her singing chops, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes gives her an acting showcase. Her delivery of the character’s many quips is perfectly sharp, as is her ability to handle the more emotionally nuanced aspects of the role. And yes, she does get a few songs as well.
Outside of Zegler, the biggest highlight in the cast is Viola Davis, who absolutely eats as the sinister gamemaker. She’s playing it big and villainous, but that’s exactly what the role calls for. Putting her performance up against that of Donald Sutherland in the main series makes for an interesting comparison. Given that Davis’s character is the in-universe inspiration for Sutherland’s, it’s interesting to see how Davis picked up on some of the subtle qualities that would come to define President Snow.
Interestingly, Tom Blyth — who plays a young version of Sutherland’s character — gives a performance that feels nothing like the veteran actor. Granted, this is clearly purposeful, and the movie does deserve props for doing a great job of making a character we were supposed to hate in the main series empathetic despite knowing where he ends up.
The rest of the cast honestly isn’t given much to do. Jason Schwartzman is fun as the host of the Games, sharing the same wacky energy that Stanley Tucci brought to the series before, but doesn’t leave much of an impact. Peter Dinklage is given little to do other than mope around angrily. And Hunter Schafer feels entirely wasted on a role that could have easily used her talents to be more of an emotional grounding to the film.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes rides heavily on the strength of its performances and goodwill from the rest of the series. Although it’s nowhere near as bad as the tedious Mockingjay – Part 1, the prequel likely won’t have many clamoring for more from the world of Panem.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes hits theaters on November 17.