The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

  • Release date: November 17, 2023
  • Director: Francis Lawrence
  • Distributed by: Lionsgate, Lionsgate Films
  • Adapted from: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
  • Budget: $100 million
  • Cinematography: Jo Willems

Set six and a half decades prior to the film that initiated the blockbuster series, "The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" embarks on a journey that few were clamoring for, tracing the ascent of Panem's tyrannical ruler Coriolanus Snow. Dividing the narrative into a trio of sections echoes the film's overarching attempt to master a trifecta of cinematic pitfalls: excess melodrama, ham-fisted performances, and a tendency towards unnecessary length.

Francis Lawrence, who has become synonymous with the world of Panem, once again takes the director's chair for the latest chapter in the Hunger Games saga. "The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes," which springs from Suzanne Collins' 2020 novel, brings a prequel to life while maintaining the potent essence of its predecessors. Even as the adaptation proves enjoyable, its depth compresses a complex narrative into a frame that yearns for more time to fully unravel its intricacies.

The film opens with a brief glimpse into “The Dark Days” that immediately followed the conflict between the Districts and the Capitol. We witness the Capitol's ruin and young Tigris, alongside her younger relative Coriolanus Snow, seeing a man resort to taking a limb from a fallen body for sustenance. The story then leaps to the present: the dawn of the 10th Hunger Games, a brutal reminder of the Capitol's unrelenting dominion over the Districts. On the verge of finishing secondary school and proceeding to a prestigious institution, Coriolanus, portrayed with icy blond locks by Tom Blyth, faces the pressures of a new mentorship program linking his class with the tributes of the Hunger Games. The stakes are high—success could secure a monetary reward that would lift Coriolanus and his relatives, including an underutilized Hunter Schafer as his cousin, out of poverty.

The Capitol is experiencing dwindling interest in the annual Games, with the citizens' appetite for the event waning. This year welcomes numerous innovations, one being the instruction for mentors to make the Games a spectacle worth watching. Coriolanus's charge, the spirited Lucy Gray Baird (brilliantly played by Rachel Zegler) of District 12, initially appears to stand no chance. Yet, her flair for performance soon signifies that she might indeed leave a memorable impression on the audience. Combining Lucy Gray's theatrics with Coriolanus's cunning ambitions and his ability to curry favor with the powers that be, like the comically enchanting Lucretius "Lucky" Flickerman (played by Jason Schwartzman) and the cunning Dr. Volumnia Gaul (a fantastic Viola Davis), their chances of triumph seem to rise.

However, complexities arise. Coriolanus's peer Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera), despite coming from District origins and acquiring a Capitol education through his prosperous family, empathizes with the District dwellers and lingering rebels. Coriolanus finds himself perpetually reining in Sejanus's sympathies. Moreover, a romance blossoms between Coriolanus and Lucy Gray, increasing his urgency to ensure her survival.

Director Francis Lawrence, who helmed the latter three installments, is well-acquainted with theatrical performances. This is seen with Jason Schwartzman's portrayal of Lucky Flickerman, the game's charismatic master of ceremonies, with a surname that rings familiar, bringing a dose of levity to the film.

The narrative is compelling and ripe for a prequel exploration. Through the course of the Games and their fallout, it attempts to address critical questions about the origins, purpose, and true nature of the Hunger Games, as well as the ascent of the ruthless President Coriolanus Snow from his beginnings. Yet, the film’s rich plot, spanning an entire Games event, leaves one desiring more—perhaps extending beyond its already lengthy three-hour runtime.

The film grapples with the idea of authenticity amidst a world where every action could well be an act for survival. Lucy Gray asserts her defiance and cunning by singing and stealthily releasing a snake during a televised performance, hinting at her understanding of the Games as a performance. Coriolanus, too, is depicted as stepping away from or engaging in the problematic situations his friends face. Yet the exploration of utilitarian relationships only surfaces towards the film's climax, portraying Coriolanus’ path to darkness more like an unexpected twist than the inevitable result of his situation and character—a delivery that feels like a dramatic reveal instead of the unfolding tragedy it truly is.

At its core, the film is a somber depiction of a cruel reality. This installment of the Hunger Games series perhaps most poignantly communicates the grimness of children being pitted against each other in combat – the barren, austere gymnasium starkly contrasts the elaborate, artificially enhanced settings of later games, without the distractions of scenic beauty or exotic creatures to divert from the savagery of the confrontations. The rawness of the violence stands out, creating a spectacle that feels palpably authentic, yet the narrative lacks the depth necessary to fully captivate.


In "The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes," Francis Lawrence revisits the dystopian world where young individuals are compelled to engage in a grim contest for the amusement of the opulent elite. The film stays true to Suzanne Collins’ prequel story yet doesn't quite succeed in portraying the intricate web of manipulation and emotional entanglements that are central to the protagonists' fateful relationship. Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler shine as the latest talents to join the series, delivering compelling interpretations of their markedly distinct roles. However, they are not afforded ample time within the film to explore and develop their characters to their full potential.