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film review
  • The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes
  • Directed by Francis Lawrence
  • Written by Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins
  • Starring Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler and Viola Davis
  • Classification PG; 157 minutes
  • Opens in theatres Nov. 17

It is not difficult to understand why the film industry initially latched on to Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games novels: Where else but Hollywood are desperate, attractive teenagers pitted against one another in gladiatorial-level combat until only one is left standing, their crowning achievement broadcast to households around the world in a faux anyone-can-be-star exercise in dream-making?

Collins might have been riffing on the Greek myth of Theseus (and perhaps Koushun Takami’s smash-success Japanese novel Battle Royale), but her books also hit upon the sweet spot of blockbuster moviemaking: only the strong, and sexy, survive.

The trouble is that after four films of increasingly diminishing dramatic returns, studio executives have unwittingly become players in a Hunger Games of their own making, each scrambling to figure out the next big young-adult hit before their time is abruptly, brutally cut short. After years of trying to replicate success with a league of imitators – one of which, the Divergent series, pitifully gave up mid-trilogy, never filming its promised third entry – the only answer is a new Hunger Games. By which I mean old, as The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes goes the prequel route, adapting Collins’s 2020 novel about the life of a young Coriolanus Snow, who would go on to become the chief antagonist of the series.

Taking the Phantom Menace route is a dangerous one – audiences don’t need to see every villain’s baby album, no matter how cute – and it is not as if the original text left anyone begging for more background on the fascist president of Panem, Collins’s dystopic version of a future America. The guy (played by Donald Sutherland in the films) loved watching kids die and occasionally smelling roses. Got it.

Yet here we are, with a new film delivering an old message (power corrupts all) and directed by an even older franchise regular (Francis Lawrence, who helmed the last three of the four Hunger Games films). And in the absence of anything fresh, Songbirds & Snakes chooses to survive – just barely – on stale bread and worn circuses.

Why Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence re-enlisted for Suzanne Collins’s dystopian prequel

Set six decades before the adventures of regime-toppling hero Katniss Everdeen, Lawrence’s film opens with a teenage Coriolanus (Tom Blyth) trying to rise through the societal ranks of the postwar Capitol. His once-proud family has been reduced to near-poverty, yet Corio sees a future for himself in the government, if he can just nab a crucial higher-education scholarship. His fortunes are potentially scuttled, though, when he’s asked to mentor Lucy Gray (Rachel Zegler), a girl from the impoverished District 12 who has been selected to participate in the 10th annual Hunger Games. If she wins (survives), then Corio might get to advance his station. If she dies in combat, his future might perish, too. Good thing that any romance between the two class-crossed lovers surely won’t complicate things.

Although unimaginatively cribbing from the smoothly bland grey-and-grit palate of his original Hunger Games aesthetic, Lawrence keeps the momentum humming for the first two thirds of Songbirds & Snakes, There are some genuinely nasty deaths on display that push the limits of the young audience that the movie is obviously trying to both court and shock. The action also continues the franchise’s built-in capacity for finding resonance with whatever of-the-moment conflict is rocking the headlines.

I’m positive that no one involved in the film actually wants to talk about the Middle East, but a scene in which rebel ‘’terrorists’' attack a key Capitol piece of infrastructure, killing civilians in the mayhem, demands some postscreening conversations.

The supporting cast is also worth discussion, with the elder statesmen of the film – Peter Dinklage as the cynical co-creator of the Hunger Games competition, Jason Schwartzman as the smarmy host of the ceremony, and Viola Davis as the Games’ truly wackadoo head of weaponry – all vying with each other to see who can gnaw more scenery than the other. (Davis, decked out in a fright-night wig and cradling rainbow serpents, seems like she’s afforded the edge, but it’s Schwartzman’s offhand delivery of a line involving a dinner reservation that ultimately steals the show.)

Yet because the teenage meat of the thing rests on Corio and Lucy Gray, it’s up to Blyth and Zegler to light and then carry the film’s torch – a task neither can quite handle with as much confidence or range as their adult minders. Zegler, so wonderful as the sweetly naive Maria in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, is particularly hard to take as the singin’, drawlin’, ostensibly charmin’ Appalachian heroine who feels pulled from a Not Another Hunger Games-like parody of the genre.

What’s more frustrating, though, is the film’s final act – a dense patch of storytelling that never gets the space it needs to breathe. While Lawrence and his producing partners got deserved flak for breaking up Collins’s third novel, Mockingjay, into two films, they’ve come away from the experience having learned the wrong lessons, here compressing what should have been either two films or a three-part miniseries into one excessive, crushing film. Even devotees of Collins’s book might walk away from this adaptation calloused and confused, so rushed does the final turn of Corio’s screw feel.

At least the filmmakers built themselves a franchisable escape hatch. Five films in now, and nobody has yet made a movie about the actual war that started the whole District versus Capitol division, and thus the Hunger Games itself. Surely, someone in the belly of Lionsgate studio is working away on just such a thing now. May the odds be ever in their favour.

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