Despite my own disbelief in the need for a prequel of ‘The Hunger Games’ franchise, there’s actually a lot of strong story points that is made in the origin story of Coriolanus Snow, the villain and main antagonist of the original trilogy. ‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes’ manages to highlight the importance of media and spectacle in any autocracy and oppressive government. As a prequel, the film is set during the period of the tenth Hunger Games (for reference, the movie was set during the 74th Hunger Games, 64 years later) and the games were much more crude and primitive in comparison. Televising the games was a new concept and through it, the film showcases elements of media theory that come into play. It’s a riveting examination of how intrinsically linked media and public perception is to government control.
What also elevates the film are spectacular (and rather surprising) performances from Viola Davis and Rachel Zegler, giving us two characters to really dig into. It’s surprising coming from material as commercial as this but a good actor knows how to make most of the parts that their given.
Davis can do wonders with any role thrown at her and she makes her portrayal of Dr. Gaul, the head game maker of The Hunger Games an exploration of jadedness and cruelty. This is a woman who has seen the worst of humankind and is just mirroring it in her life. It’s quite a performance. It is wonderful counterpoint to that of Zegler’s Lucy Gray Baird, the female tribute of District 12. Zegler’s carefree and no-non-sense balladeer who is fighting for her life truly brings you in to the film. While Dr. Gaul seems to find no joy in life (other than taking it in surprising ways in the Hunger Games), Zegler’s Lucy Gray is full of life and is adamant in staying that way.
And this is my main issue with the film. ‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ is a film that narrates the rise of Coriolanus Snow (played by Tom Blyth), the future enemy of Katniss Everdeen, a man who will be ruthless and sadistic and evil. The film is wrapped around in a dystopian world that is suffering from the oppression of a tyrannical regime. Snow is but collateral damage, his once wealthy-family has lost all of its political capital and Snow must exceed all expectations at University if he is to save his grandmother and cousin from starvation and being kicked out into the streets. In an effort to survive and thrive, he has to do well as a mentor to Lucy Gray and get noticed by those in power to receive the grand prize that will change his fortune.
As the film challenges autocratic states and gives a rather spirited argument on the value and price of human lives, the film puts front and center the desires of a man who would choose to sacrifice friends and principles to succeed. Yes, the blossoming love story between Snow and Lucy Gray creates the necessary tension that underlines what Snow lost in order for him to become the man he will become but is that really the best protagonist for this story?
As compelling a performance as Blyth can deliver, he is completely overshadowed by the nuanced and vital role Zegler infuses her portrayal of Lucy Gray. From the desperation and willingness, she has to live and survive her ordeal as a tribute, to the way she empowers every song number she has in the film with anger and rebellion, Zegler creates a character that is larger than life – a character that is in full defiance of everything the world of The Hunger Games calls for. I wouldn’t mind if the film began with Coriolanus but I would have wanted it to have finished with Lucy Gray. There’s so much more to the character than what we get to see in the film, and when we see the complex decisions the character makes at the final act of the film – that’s when you realise Zegler’s portrayal is far more layered and nuanced than you expect.
The film and its story, directed by Francis Lawrence (who directed the ‘Catching Fire’ and ‘The Mockingjay: Part One’ and ‘The Mockingjay: Part Two’), feels more in tune to humanizing and empathizing with Coriolanus Snow but to what end? For all its arguments about the loss of humanity in something brutal and cruel as the Hunger Games, to the importance of breaking free from that oppressive state, we continue to follow the story of a man who will only serve to make this world even harsher and crueller.
By following Snow’s story from his challenging beginnings to how he beats all odds to become the person he will be, from his complex relationship with his tribute Lucy Gray, and such, we are meant to empathize with him, feel sorry for him, maybe even root for him and I feel that this goes against everything that the film is trying to convey against this sort of oppressive system.
Maybe ten or fifteen years ago, we could find value in the humanizing of anti-heros such as Snow. But in this current political climate and in this day and age where real life monsters exist and control governments, I am very wary of Hollywood’s continued representation of villains and humanizing them and giving them nuance and texture. In a film as political as any of ‘The Hunger Games’ franchise, in its dystopian view of a future that is grappling with its humanity, I would very much prefer a film that was less in favour of its villains.
I agree with the stance of its characters like Lucy Gray. I wish it was more of her movie than that of Snow.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is now showing. Check screening times and buy tickets here.