The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes just might have broken the prequel curse.
Set 60 years before the events of the Hunger Games trilogy, the franchise’s latest installment delves into the makings of a young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) as he serves as a mentor in the 10th annual Hunger Games. Paired with District 12’s appointed songbird, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), Snow is tasked with helping Lucy Gray throughout the games, lending into a larger epic on the beginnings of a tyrant, the erasure of a symbol, and the launch of the games we know to come years later.
While Catching Fire may be largely hailed as the Hunger Games’ best film, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes might easily take that crown. Forget any critiques of the original films not being dark enough—The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes recognizes the games’ true ruthlessness and its matured real-life audience, and delivers a masterpiece of calculated chaos that informs political themes that feel as relevant as ever.
Get ready to see a new Hunger Games unlike anything you’ve seen before
A large part of what makes The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes so good is the game itself. With the event still only being in its 10th year, a majority of its preparations are largely in their infancy, so don’t expect to see the same spectacle we bore witness to in the first Hunger Games. There are no ball gowns. There’s no lavish tribute welcome. There’s no meticulously designed arena filled to the brim with theatrics. Instead, the tributes are forced to pile in a zoo ahead of the game’s beginning, crowding in an open-air cage with little to no food as the Capitol's residents gawk and awe at them.
The aforementioned is topped with the arena itself, which is nothing but a demolished amphitheater that tributes enter through a turnstile (yes, a turnstile), that exclusively includes a pile of weapons in its center and nothing else. In this version of the games, tributes aren’t expected to last more than a couple of hours. We get to witness how the game’s early beginnings were something akin to Roman gladiators, where the only expectation from the Capitol’s audience was to watch a bunch of kids literally rip each other to shreds for two hours.
The games are primitive, ruthless, and malevolent to their core in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. The gamemakers don’t even pick up or remove the corpses from the arena, leaving them to decay while the surviving tributes continue to shed blood around them. While the spectacle procured out of the Hunger Games in the original films is a metaphor in and of itself on humanity, this version of the games stings deeper and harrowingly explores a nature vs. nurture debate on evil—how quickly we can all become predators when someone deems us as prey.
You might not want to take your kids to see this one
While the original Hunger Games trilogy did feature significant violence, you could still watch them as a 10-year-old kid obsessed with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, however, recognizes that most of those 10-year-olds have now become 20-year-olds and doesn’t shy away from leaning into more disturbing content and themes.
The deaths in the arena are grotesque. After all, these tributes have nowhere to hide, so it’s only natural to expect them to be forced into a bloodthirsty corner. The film also opens with a flashback to Panem’s war against the rebels, and realistically captures the heights war-induced famine can lead people. Considering that the film is set 10 years after the war’s end, the nature of the Capitol’s “peace keepers” is also slightly more intense than their role in the original Hunger Games, and there might be a few scenes that aren’t suitable for your kiddo getting into the franchise. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snake has a PG-13 rating like the first Hunger Games film, and yet it feels significantly darker. You might want to start with the books if you have a younger kid eager to watch this.
Even Viola Davis can’t save the film from its lackluster final act
At a whopping two-hour-and-45-minute runtime, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes unfortunately wavers in its last act. Perhaps it’s because the film’s first two acts—solely focused on the games—are so triumphant that its ending feels fizzled out. Or perhaps it’s because Viola Davis significantly out-acts all her peers (are we surprised?). But the last hour of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is unnecessarily drawn out, and chooses to shift focus on Lucy Gray’s musical performances rather than Snow’s final descent into tyranny. While Zegler is a delight and her voice is absolutely stunning, I personally would have preferred seeing more of Snow’s innerworkings brought to the helm, to really land the film’s concluding note.
And for the fans worried about how that scene is going to play out, rest assured that the film does capture the book’s intensity and ambiguity exceptionally well. Blyth particularly does a stunning job during that conclusive moment, but I do still think there were more edges and gears that could have been turned for what’s perhaps the story’s most important scene. Fans will also be delighted to know that there’s a slew of Easter eggs sprinkled throughout the film that tactfully hint at the seeds sown for our Mockingjay to come decades later.
Ultimately, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a dark masterpiece that reminds us all why we fell in love with the books and franchise to begin with. Any naysayers who deemed the Hunger Games a shelved opportunity after the polarizing reception to Mockingjay Part 1 and Part 2 will be sorely surprised by the gravitas Songbirds and Snakes manages to pack on. The film has easily landed itself a top ranking in the franchise, giving Catching Fire a run for its money, and will leave audiences wanting more. Who knows? Maybe we’ll finally get the Finnick spinoff we’ve all been waiting for.