The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes review: The odds are well in its favor

Lucy-Jo Finnighan
Tom Blyth as Coriolanus Snow and Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.Lionsgate

The Hunger Games prequel movie, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, takes us back into Panem, and back into the hype of the original film franchise.

The Hunger Games movies are considered by many to be the best of their genre. Set in a world in which children are forced to fight each other to the death in an arena created and run by the oppressive Capitol society, the original series proved to be a commercial and critical success.

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So when author Suzanne Collins released a prequel novel, titled The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, which focused on President Snow’s time as a mentor in the 10th Annual Hunger Games, it seemed clear that it had a hard act to follow.

Now the book is getting its own movie adaptation, directed by Hunger Games Alumni Francis Lawrence, which is coming out this week. And thankfully, it lives up to the potential of the original series, even pushing to the level of 2013’s Catching Fire. Let’s get into it, and don’t worry, we’ll be keeping spoilers to a minimum!

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The Hunger Games prequel pulls us into Panem

The movie opens during a time before the Hunger Games even began, and it’s pleasantly surprising just how easy it is to step back into this world, despite the years in between movie releases. This is a different Panem, with a different style of Hunger Games, but this Panem is no doubt evolving into the one we already know.

Books are always tricky to adapt, especially when it’s told so succinctly from one person’s point of view, as Suzanne Collin’s books have been. While this wasn’t so much of an issue with the original trilogy, this does pose an issue when the main focus of the story is the psychology of President Snow, and how he could have grown up into the monster that he was.

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The movie primarily focuses on Snow’s perspective; we only get to view and judge other characters in the way he does, but the flick misses out on a lot of the snake-like thoughts it is titled after, and we only get either Snow’s performances or his genuine emotions. While these moments are compelling, it makes his turn at the end of the movie slightly jarring, as there arguably isn’t enough build-up without knowing exactly what he’s thinking.

However, the nature of the characters when interacting with other people lends themselves better to this more objective framing; Tom Blyth as Snow and Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird are able to emote much more than Jennifer Lawrence’s stoic Katniss could, making them much easier to enjoy onscreen. Zegler’s talent as a showman shines far brighter than any words on a page could, with her musical numbers being highlights of the film.

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Of course, when discussing performances, we can’t ignore the borderline campy performances by Viola Davis and Jason Schwartzman, who both bring a lot of fun and menace. Meanwhile, Peter Dinklage brings a touch more levity, providing some regretful history to the Hunger Games.

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And the ending of Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, while not as fleshed out as in the book, will no doubt have the same impact, with its compelling turn of characters and relationships, and mystery that is poetically foreshadowed from the very beginning.

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The movie cuts a lot, but you don’t always miss it

This movie is the longest of the franchise and doesn’t end with the ending of the Hunger Games, a move that will no doubt shock those who haven’t read the book. However, this runtime and extended third act doesn’t ever stay past its welcome, which is due to the streamlining of the book in order to fit a movie format.

Of course, this does mean that some elements have been left out, including certain deaths and more of the ugliness of the Capitol’s treatment of the Districts, which interestingly differs from what we’ve seen in previous films. Then again, what’s present in the movie is certainly enough to leave you as haunted as the ghosts of the hanging tree.

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There are character moments missed that would have fleshed out other Capitol citizens; for now, most of them don’t appear to have much complexity. Sejanus (Josh Andrés Rivera) and Tigris (Hunter Schafer) are arguably the only humans, with the rest feeling like stock High School mean girls. The same thankfully can’t be said for the tributes; this movie improves upon the first Hunger Games in that its side characters are given far more agency and tragedy in their own right, outside of their relation to Lucy Gray.

This is shown by the violence within the movie; we don’t shy away from the brutality of the Capitol or the kill-or-be-killed nature of the Games. The fact that the cast looks younger also hones in the central message of the franchise far better.

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The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes review score: 4/5

While we may have spent a lot of time comparing The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes movie to its original text, this prequel film is definitely able to stand on its own, and will no doubt be considered by many as the strongest of the franchise.

This is the Hunger Games as we have never seen them before, and The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes only enriches the world of Panem. It has its faults, but if you’re looking for a prequel that expands the world and its characters, this movie rings true. And thus, this songbird will sing this movie’s praises.

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The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is in cinemas on November 17. Read more about the movie below:

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About The Author

Lucy-Jo is a Movies and TV Writer at Dexerto, and has previously written for Screen Rant and Girls on Tops. After earning a Master's Degree in Film and Literature, Lucy-Jo now loves covering films, TV shows, and anime, especially if it's something by Mike Flanagan, or anything drenched in camp. You can contact her at lucyjo.finnighan@dexerto.com