It’s hard to believe it’s been eight years since the last Hunger Games movie, the fourth part of a ‘Hollywood trilogy’. Those films drew on the star power of Jennifer Lawrence as heroine, Katniss Everdeen, but the actor’s light has dimmed in recent years, the low point being the dismal sex comedy, No Hard Feelings (2023).
The new Hunger Games, subtitled The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, doesn’t suffer by Lawrence’s absence. A prequel, set roughly 60 years in advance of the events of the first Hunger Games movie of 2012, it relates the backstory of Coriolanus Snow, whom we’ve only known to this point as the elderly dictator of Panem, played by a white-maned Donald Sutherland.
If the world of the earlier films seemed grim, it was even grimmer during Coriolanus’s childhood. In post-apocalyptic North America, rechristened Panem, virtually everyone is poor and starving, even the residents of the Capitol, who rule over the other twelve districts. The young Coriolanus – “Coryo” – and his sister Tigris (Hunter Schafer) are orphans who have fallen on hard times following the assassination of their father, Crassus.
Coryo’s only chance of advancement is to successfully mentor the winner of the Hunger Games, the gladiatorial contest devised by Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), Dean of the Capitol’s Academy for elite students. As Highbottom explains later in the film, he came up with the idea as a drunken joke that was seized upon and put into practice. Intended as a cruel mortification for the rebellious districts, the Games conscripts young people from each region to fight to the death in an arena.
Coryo and his fellow students are given the task of mentoring the 24 “tributes”, who have been chosen at random. In the arena, a small girl stands little chance against a powerful adult male, but this is half the fun for viewers. The mismatches and moral dilemmas are set against the overwhelming instinct for survival that kicks in when contestants are faced with ‘life or death’ choices.
It seems at first that Coryo has drawn the short straw with his tribute, Lucy Gray Baird, a slight but feisty folk singer from District 12. We assume, for the sake of the series, that Lucy will almost certainly triumph, but the plot has more twists than the jar of poisonous snakes that provides half the movie’s subtitle.
In the third part of the film, Coryo is sent as a soldier to District 12, where he needs to make difficult choices that will determine his future. In doing so, he shows us the man he will become.
This is as much of a summary as I’m willing to provide, as too much information can only detract from the experience of a film that is arguably the best in the series. Director, Francis Lawrence, who has helmed the three most recent installments, has grown into the job and seems completely at home with these characters. Young British actor, Tom Blyth is perfect for the role of Coryo, a youthful romanticism giving way to a growing ruthlessness that comes across as self-discovery. Coryo’s is a dark enlightenment. We can never say whether he is corrupted by circumstances, or battles his way through distractions to find his true personality.
Blyth has the kind of face that can turn quickly from wide-eyed sincerity to sneering cynicism. He looks like the blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy you can trust, but there’s always a sideways glance or a slight curl of the lip. Because we accept him as a hero for most of this movie, we are taken aback by his actions in the third chapter when he reveals a different side of his personality.
Rachel Zegler, who made her screen debut in Steven Spielberg’s 2021 adaptation of West Side Story, is well cast as the “songbird”, whom Coryo sees as a potential TV star, able to boost the Games’ flagging ratings. Even as he is falling in love with her, he is aware of Lucy Gray as a commercial proposition and is able to sell the idea to the Games impresario, Dr. Volumnia Gaul – a truly deranged “mad scientist” impersonation from Viola Davis.
The film is punctuated by Lucy Grey’s songs which all seem to be murder ballads and tales of lost love. These performances are perhaps the corniest bits of the whole package, albeit dramatically necessary. The most interesting part of the story concerns Lucy Grey’s evolving relationship with Coryo. To put it simply: she represents the forces of good and manages to draw him temporarily into her orbit, but Coryo’s upbringing and instincts drag him in the opposite direction. His first impulses are surprisingly violent, although we don’t notice this tendency right away. His passion for Lucy Grey and his friendship with wayward schoolmate, Sejanus (Josh Andrés Rivera), are portrayed as signs of integrity, but he is ready to betray anyone at a moment’s notice.
The ”snakes” of the title may refer to that mass of multicoloured serpents Dr. Gaul wants to unleash on the hapless tributes, but it’s just as easy to see Coryo as the snake to Lucy Grey’s songbird.
Although this Hunger Games is pulp fiction, it’s also a surprisingly deft study of the corrosion of character, with a contemporary angle. Like almost every American movie in the age of Donald Trump, it uses a fictional scenario to comment on the present. In this case, the focus is on the cruelty of the Hunger Games, cast as a policy designed to inflict maximum pain and demoralisation on the enemies of the Capitol. Such sadism has become a distressing part of everyday political life in the United States, from the separation of parents and children at the border, to draconian abortion bans, to pushing through the executions of condemned prisoners. It’s not enough to inflict pain on individuals: that pain must be turned into a public spectacle, a demonstration of one’s own toughness.
The Hunger Games posits a not-implausible future in which cruelty has become commodified and commercialised, where justice is meted out by decree or through force of arms. In this story we see how love and humanity struggle to defend themselves in a world in which the only safety lies in being on the right side of power. Once the young Coriolanus Snow manages to rid himself of all the finer feelings, his career is set to flourish.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Written by Michael Lesslie, Michael Arndt, based on a novel by Suzanne Collins
Starring: Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Viola Davis, Josh Andrés Rivera, Peter Dinklage, Jason Schwartzman, Hunter Schafer, Ashley Liao, Mackenzie Lansing, Dimitri Abold
USA, M, 157 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 25 November, 2023