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Review: The Evolution of Villainy in The Hunger Games Prequel: The Ballad of the Songbirds & Snakes

By Faith Diaz

In the latest installment of the Hunger Games saga, director Francis Lawrence takes audiences on a riveting journey 64 years into the past, revealing the origins of Panem's darkest traditions. Hunger Games: The Ballad of the Songbirds & Snakes delves into the 10th annual Hunger Games, exploring the complex character of a young President Snow, known then as Coriolanus.

Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird and Tom Blyth as Coriolanus Snow in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.
Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird and Tom Blyth as Coriolanus Snow in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Photo: Murray Close

The Ballad of the Songbirds & Snakes follows a young Coriolanus Snow, played by Tom Blyth, a young man striving to escape the post-war struggles of Panem. The film opens with a glimpse into the impoverished Snow family; penniless, close to eviction, hiding behind the dissolving legacy of Coriolanus' deceased father. These scenes set the stage for Coriolanus's desperate pursuit of success at the Capitol academy.

Dressed by his cousin, the budding fashion designer Tigris, Coriolanus leaves her and his grandmother at home as he ventures to the academy in hopes of receiving the Plinth Prize, a scholarship and prize money to help keep them financially afloat. However, the narrative takes an unexpected turn when the Gamemakers introduce Coriolanus and his classmates to the first mentorship program, an attempt to keep viewers interested in the Hunger Games. These star students are to mentor the tenth games' tributes, and Coriolanus is assigned the seemingly least advantageous tribute, Lucy Gray from District 12. What ensues is a captivating tale of manipulation, survival, and a subtle dance between control and emotion.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes movie poster
Photo: Lionsgate
“The blood that runs through the first four movies runs through the veins of this one. To show a different side at a different time has been really exciting, especially because it fills in the stories you know as it sweeps you up into its own narrative,” says producer Nina Jacobsen in a press release.

Named after a character from a Wordsworth poem, viewers first meet Blyth's co-lead at the tenth annual reaping. Rachel Zegler shines as Lucy Gray, a performer and girl from humble beginnings. Lucy Gray is a character who defies Capitol expectations with her daring spirit and captivating singing voice. Her dynamic presence challenges Coriolanus, setting the stage for a complex relationship that oscillates between obligation, necessity, and genuine emotion.

Her quick wit and charm - seen as unexpected attributes of District people by the Capitol - is quickly discovered by Coriolanus, who takes the first chance to meet her by showing up at the train station when she arrives in the Capitol. From there the two begin a back and forth portrayal in front of the media - not entirely unlike that which will later happen with Katniss and Peeta - of making the other look not only likable, but also favorable, and perhaps thus also victorious.

Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird and Tom Blyth as Coriolanus Snow in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Photo: Murray Close
Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird and Tom Blyth as Coriolanus Snow in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Photo: Murray Close

There is an unspoken need that exists between Lucy Gray and Coriolanus, as they both need each other to survive. This need blends with emotion and begins the tricky dance of whether or not their infatuation with one another, their desire to keep each other present, is out of obligation, simple necessity, or just sheer emotion.

While Lucy Gray represents the everyday disadvantaged people of Panem, Coriolanus Snow represents those behind those disadvantages - the people within the safe confines of the Capitol. Both o are a mirror to the ruthlessness that is a government unit systematically killing its citizens in unique fashions. She comes from a district of hard labor and limited resources, yet has a jolliness about her strength. Coriolanus comes from a capital of ostentatious principles and frivolous use of resources, yet has a seriousness that cannot rest.

The main character, Coriolanus, has been given the place in his household of hope. There is an assumed position that he can save their family name, regain their previously lost fortunes, and grow in status in the face of their Capitol peers and families. He is acting every day. A personality shift contradictory to his actual essence and true feelings.

As the film unfolds, Coriolanus Snow emerges as a multifaceted character, torn between his privileged upbringing in the Capitol and the harsh realities of Panem. Tom Blyth masterfully portrays Coriolanus's internal conflict, revealing a man constantly acting to maintain his family's status while secretly grappling with conflicting emotions. He takes food from the Academy and hides it away to eat or share later. He wants to win the scholarship money but also emotionally fights for Lucy Gray’s safety. He is both a friend and an enemy.

The supporting character, Sejanus Plinth (played by Josh Andres Rivera), adds another layer to the narrative, highlighting Coriolanus's precarious alliances and the moral complexities of survival within the Capitol.

Director Francis Lawrence skillfully weaves together the storylines of various characters, creating a suspenseful narrative that explores the intricate dynamics of dismantling a government structure from within. It is a testament to the way the mind can break beneath a continuous tug of war battle between what should be done and what can be done.

The film also serves as a psychoanalysis of the blueprint for President Snow's future mindset, revealing the transformation from "Coryo" - as his cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer) so lovingly calls him - to Coriolanus, to the ruthless leader of Panem. We watch as he goes from Corio to Coriolanus to President Snow and how that mirrors his transitions from youthful innocence, into the understanding of reality that young adulthood brings, into the foundation he uses to gain control and power in Panem. This entire portrayal is overtly wrapped in the world building already established by writer Suzanne Collins in the series. It is understood that Snow exists in the “belly of the beast” that is the Capitol government.

His character understands at his core, the systems of the Hunger Games cannot be unraveled easily. It is through the effects of government conditioning, an attempt to exist within a strict regime's laws, and the impossible balancing act of surviving versus doing what is morally right that foreshadows the downfall of Coriolanus Snow's mind. It is these complexities that trigger the power hungry crawl to the top that he engages in and later, these same foundation blocks that facilitate his exemplary ability to murder in the name of his cause. The same cherished loved ones he at first holds close in his youth, become disposable in his older age.

With lives in the balance of every decision they make, Coriolanus Snow and Lucy Grey fight from two separate directions: the Capitals' wills, their own doubts, and for one another. What begins as a playful light and young snowfall, becomes a storm that buries. Audiences watch Snow’s slow transition into his tyranny as he loses everyone and thing he holds close, including his own sanity. The movie successfully plays on the emotional investment of audiences, challenging their perceptions of the previous Hunger Games films. As Coriolanus's character evolves, viewers are confronted with the unsettling realization that their narrator may not be as reliable as initially assumed.

Playing on the emotional investment of audiences to the character of Coriolanus, Director Francis Lawrence, paired with actor Tom Blyth, create the perfect portrayal of an inner monologue happening amongst outside events. Viewers having assumed they can trust their narrator to tell the truth, realize his mind is anything but reliable.

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of the Songbirds & Snakes is a thought-provoking and emotionally charged addition to the franchise. It offers a nuanced exploration of power, morality, and the devastating consequences of one man's ascent to tyranny. In theaters now, this installment is a must-see for fans of the Hunger Games series.


About the Writer:

Faith Diaz, originally born in Bronx, N.Y., USA, spent most of her childhood moving from place to place. She graduated from the University of Maine at Farmington with her BFA in Creative Writing. Her hope in the future is to continue sharing the stories that matter, from people who do even more so.


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