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I watched The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes and this is my honest review

Rachel Zegler and Tom Blyth star in the new film, directed by Francis Lawrence, who directed Catching Fire and both Mockingjay films

The Hunger Games: Ballad of Songirds and Snakes poster
Rebecca Lewis
Rebecca Lewis - Los Angeles
ReporterLos Angeles
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Dystopian young adult novels were my jam (and everyone else's) back in the mid-2000s, but these days, the world is dark enough, so I keep my reading light. I therefore didn't know that, back in 2020, Suzanne Collins had released a prequel to her hugely successful The Hunger Games series, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, which tells the story of how President Snow became the cruel and tyrannical leader we met in her original books. 

The villain origin story has become a box office staple in recent years, a la Maleficent, Cruella, and Joker – but the question always remains, when your audience already knows what road the protagonist is going to take, how can you be successful in turning them into a character we can get behind? 

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes trailer

It was my main fear going into this new film out on November 17 2023, but one that director Francis Lawrence, screenwriters Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt, and acting newcomer Tom Blyth managed to assuage with a heartbreaking story of power, love and betrayal. 

At 18, Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) is now the last hope for his once-proud family, who have fallen from grace in a post-war capital. As he hopes to win a prestigious college scholarship, Corio is instead thrown into chaos when it is revealed that his class have been tasked with mentoring the 10th annual Hunger Games tributes and that their strategy and skills shown will influence the winner of the scholarship. 

Tom Blyth stars as Coriolanus Snow, he looks down at Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird© Lionsgate
Tom Blyth stars as Coriolanus Snow, the future President of Panem

Coyro is given Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a tribute from the impoverished District 12 – but when her surprise actions during the reaping ceremony shock the audiences of Panem, he realizes he can turn the odds in their favor – and try to make them both winners. 

Set 64 years before we meet Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen of the original films, this is a Panem that is still finding itself in the early years after the war, and Francis Lawrence smartly leans into that, grounding the film in muted colors and a more basic Games. 

Viola Davis as Dr Gaul© Lionsgates
Viola Davis as Dr Gaul

Gone is the spectacle that we are used to, and instead the tributes are placed into a small arena with just basic weapons and their base instinct to survive. It is through Viola Davis' Dr. Gaul – a role the award-winning actor takes to campy new levels – that we see the seeds being planted that led to the horrifying spectacle of those later Games.

It is also through her early mentorship of Snow that we realize how Snow came to be the evil dictator of Panem, a man who loved power and yet was alone, never trusting anyone for knowing that power can be stolen away at any moment. 

Tom Blyth as Coriolanus Snow lies on the ground with Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird perpendicular to him© Lionsgate
Tom is the star of The Hunger Games; Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

As 18-year-old Snow, Tom brings that same dichotomy, only with an added innocence; a young man trying to save his family's legacy, desperately aiming to please everyone in his life while also figuring out what kind of man he wants to be. 

At any given moment, Tom as Snow is rushing through myriad emotions, making him an unreliable narrator and yet, somehow, giving space for the audience to root for this character to make the better decision… despite knowing who he will choose to become by the end of it all. 

Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes© Lionsgate
Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

With such a complicated character in Snow, Lucy Gray Baird needed to be an equally compelling counterpart, however West Side Story star Rachel Zegler was unable to match Tom's intensity. The lack of chemistry between the pair left me wondering what it was about Lucy Gray that Tom was drawn to, and why Tom – a man who stood for almost everything Lucy Gray hated – would capture Lucy Gray's trust so early on.

A swift edit would have also helped the film; you feel all of those two hours and 38 minutes as the film's three parts run between the events before and during the Games, and later Snow's time as a peacekeeper in District 12. 

Hollywood's love of a prequel, sequel, reboots, reinvention and retelling has been well documented, and The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes could easily be viewed as a cynical cash grab. Thankfully, the cast and crew mostly pull this one off.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is out globally on Friday November 18, 2023.

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