A Completely Unnecessary Prequel

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Prequels are tricky to pull off. By their nature, sitting in the past of a world we’ve already seen, a prequel is constrained in what it can tell. It can’t run counter to any of the events that have occurred in the “later” stories, but it has to somehow also give us a new perspective on those events or, in the end, it feels superfluous and unnecessary. A bad prequel does little more than comment on events as we already know them, doing nothing more than going through the expected story while throwing quick references to what is to come. Quite frankly, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a bad prequel.

The problem for The Hunger Games (and we call this a “problem” but it’s only really an issue in the realm of Hollywood and their mega-franchises where everything needs a sequel) is that the three novel set (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay) tell a single complete, self-contained story. The books start with Katniss Everdeen getting drafted into the Hunger Games, the annual event in Panem that sees 24 kids brought to the capital for a battle to the death with only one winner (even if Katniss then cheats this in the end) that then leads to her becoming a beacon for the anti-Panem resistance only to then see the whole system be brought down with the Hunger Games themselves then abolished. That’s it, that’s the end of the story. There’s nowhere to go from there and so, despite the Hunger Games films making $2.8 Bil at the Box Office, the franchise was over.

That, of course, wasn’t a problem for audiences. That was, in fact, some of their appeal. A story, told start-to-finish, without any of the problems plaguing superhero films today where the story never ends (even after the big, universe-ending threat is defeated, see: Avengers: Endgame). Hollywood wants more and author Susan Collins (no offense to her) probably didn’t hate all the extra money. So something had to be done, and that eventually came out in the form of a prequel: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a prequel set 64 years before the main trilogy.

In theory a prequel like this could work. It’s distant enough that it could be about the world itself instead of any one character. You could see the formation of the Hunger Games, how they became a cultural touchstone for Panem, and how, even then, the resistance would try to rise up and strike back against the ruling government for this cruel and disgusting practice. Make it about the setting and not any of the characters we previously saw in the later novels and you could neatly side-step all the issues with prequels.

So, of course, Susan Collins made it all about a character we saw before, completely ruining a solid setup to rehash the old stories again. And since the films have been fairly close adaptations of the novels, this prequel film follows that same course. It’s just tragic.

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes focuses on Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth, a character previously played by Donald Sutherland). At the time of the film’s beginning, the Snow family has been left destitute due to their holdings in District 13 having been destroyed when that district rebelled and was the, subsequently, destroyed (I don’t think the film ever says what happened to District 13 but the assumption is that it was nuked out of existence). Panem has rebuilt itself since then and the capital has become a shining beacon, at least for those living in the capital. But not for the Snow family, one of the few named families trying to get by. Their hope is for Coriolanus to win the annual Plinth Prize at his school when he graduates, giving his family a great fortune they can use to, once again, be a part of high society and, just maybe, send Coriolanus into a life of government service (not a spoiler: he’ll eventually become the 10th president of Panem).

There’s just one problem with this plan: Coriolanus’s teacher, and Dean of the academy, Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage). Highbottom has it out for Coriloanus as he has a vendetta against the family. Highbottom used to be best friends with Coriloanus’s father, but bad blood between them (and then the death of the father) has left Corilanus as Highbottom’s target. The dean changes the rules for the Plinth Prize such that it’s not the student with the best academic record (i.e., not Coriloanus) but now the person who does the best job of mentoring one of the tribute children for the 10th annual Hunger Games. Coriolanus is assigned Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a wandering singer forced to be the tribute of District 12, and now he has to try and make her into a spectacle, to save himself and to save the games, or he’s ruined.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes has a Coriolanus problem. It’s not just that we already know that whatever happens here he will succeed (because he’s the president of Panem in the other films so, clearly, he does find a way to solve his problems, as well as survive everything this story throws at him) but that we also don’t like him. He was the villain of the previous movies, the dictatorial tyrant that got off on the killing of tributes for the sake of “Making Panem Great Again”. To then turn around and make him the protagonist is too hard of a narrative turn for anyone in the audience to take. From the moment he shows up on screen you hate him, and it’s not like the film can fix that because it can’t swerve his character too far from the Coriolanus we know in the future. If he’s too different here then he’d be a completely different character.

Note: what I’m saying is that we should have had a completely different character. Coriolanus should not have been in this movie (at least not in any role larger than a glorified cameo).

When Coriolanus struggles with money, or status, or respect, it’s hard to care. “Oh no, the poor rich boy lost everything because his dad was bad at being a war profiteer.” This is not a great start to making a compelling character arc. If he were a good, bright, nice kid who gets pushed time and again to make the wrong choices for the right reasons that might have been an arc. The downfall of the hero, essentially. But the film doesn’t even do that. The Coriolanus we see here isn’t all that different from the one we know in the later movies, he just hasn’t dedicated himself quite as hard to being as big of a shitheel as he could be. That’s it. That’s his arc.

The film really should have focused on Rachel Zegler's Lucy Gray Baird. Unlike Snow, Lucy Grey is a character we don’t know. We have no knowledge of her history, we don’t even know if she’ll survive the games. If the film focused on here, either with Snow as her mentor or, better, someone else we hadn’t seen before, then we might have been able to engage with seeing a distant version of the games, watching them develop on the fly as Lucy Grey tried to survive a system she couldn’t possibly predict. Sure, it would be a closer parallel to the story from the first book, The Hunger Games, but at least the subtle nods and references to those past stories could be kept as just that, nods and references.

Instead this prequel goes out of its way to try and draw those parallels out. It wants us to see the original characters in new versions here, from Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis) who runs the games, to Lucretius "Lucky" Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman). It wants us to hear the first time the song “The Hanging Tree” is sung so we know where it came from for the later films. Hell, it even has two characters have a discussion about wild potatoes just so one character can go, “be we usually call them Katniss.” Ugh.

Structurally, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a mess. Its first act is dedicated to Coriolanus and his struggles as a rich boy without the money. The film picks up when Lucy Grey is introduced, and it finds bold energy when she’s thrust into the arena for her round of the Games. This second act is legitimately the best part of the film and it shows what the story really should have focused on. None of the political drama, nothing with the boring rich boy. The games are the highlight and Lucy’s survival within it all we need to drive the movie forward. But then the film gets sloggy and boring again when it switches to the aftermath of the games, Lucy back home and Snow getting sent to District 12. “Oh, they can fall in love and life together away from Panem,” the film says, but we already know this is a lie so there’s no drama to it. There’s no stakes. The film focuses on the wrong things, the wrong people, when for 45 thrilling minutes it was everything it needed to be. It just doesn’t work.

There’s a good movie somewhere in the middle of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, but the final result isn’t that. I get that the film was based on the book and the book has the same structure. That just tells me that the book needed to be refocused before it was released. The movie is based on flawed material and, by its nature, it does nothing to change that. You can’t save a bad story if you aren’t willing to fix it during the adaptation, and this movie simply couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do that. It fails the story, it fails the film, and it fails the audience.