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Monday, March 4, 2024

‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes’ proves why the franchise remains popular

The new prequel shows how Snow always lands on top — sort of

 

By ELIZABETH WOODHALL — arts@theaggie.org

 

“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” was released on Nov. 17 with a runtime of two hours and 37 minutes. Currently at 66 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, it is nevertheless a box-office success at $98.5 million in revenue, according to USA Today. If you are a fan of the Hunger Games franchise, this movie will prove to be a gruesome addition to the trilogy.

The prequel was announced in 2020 and was said to “revisit the world of Panem sixty-four years before the events of The Hunger Games, on the morning of the reaping of the Tenth Hunger Games,” according to a press release with Suzanne Collins, the author of the original novel series. The prequel is from the perspective of Coriolanus Snow, who fans may know as President Snow from the original trilogy. Like the original trilogy, “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” was directed by Francis Lawrence.

Despite its PG-13 rating, this movie does not shy away from the harsh realities of the aftermath of the war that plagued both the Capitol and the districts. The first scene takes place during the First Rebellion, where a younger Snow (performed by Tom Blythe) and his cousin Tigris (performed by Hunter Schafer) view their neighbor murdering someone, seemingly referencing the Capitol’s acts of cannibalism happening during the war. As they come back home, it’s announced that Snow’s father, a military general, was murdered by a rebel in District 12. This is a plot line that strays from the book but creates a digestible piece of information: Snow’s hatred for District 12 is not limited to just the Capitol’s hatred for the districts, but it is also because they took his father’s life.

Years later, Snow lives with his grandmother and Tigris in an apartment that has not been inhabited in a long time — and it seems to be dealing with a rat problem, as seen by the box of rat poison tucked away under his desk. This is not the image that fans of the original trilogy have of President Snow: untouchable, fragrant of roses and living an extravagant life. Instead, Snow is struggling to keep everything under his control, even as a student in the Capitol’s prestigious Academia. Despite the economic turmoil the Snow family experiences, both Tigris and Coriolanus are confident in their abilities to succeed amidst the chaos, saying, “Snow always lands on top.”

In comparison to the book, the students of the Academy are told that they’ll be mentoring the tributes of the Tenth Hunger Games. In addition, Dr. Gaul announces the Plinth Prize, a university scholarship provided by a wealthy family — the Plinths, formerly from District Two. The prize will be granted to the winning mentor, whose job is to create a “spectacle” out of their tribute. With the games declining in viewership back in the districts, Dean Highbottom, the “creator” of the games, wants to challenge the mentors to get creative with them.

As all the mentors are assigned their tribute from the district, Snow is finally announced as the mentor for the female tribute from District 12, Lucy Gray (performed by Rachel Zegler). To sabotage Snow, Dean Highbottom assigns Gray because District 12 is among one of the weaker districts plagued by poverty and malnourishment. Despite this misfortune, Gray serves as the perfect tribute for the tenth Hunger Games: she’s a performer who can put on a show.

Once on stage, she performs “Nothing You Can Take From Me,” a song that shows everything that cannot be taken away from the Capitol. Everyone is moved — the Capitol and the district, holding their breath as her voice takes over the speakers. Zegler captures Gray’s spirit perfectly: a girl who will not be defined by the Capitol, and she is a performer in a way that allows her to survive both inside and outside of the arena.

It’s here where we see Gray and Snow form a stronger bond. He no longer sees her as an inhumane animal — an image that many people from the capitol have of people from the districts — but sees her as someone who is displaced from her home. She also mentions that she is not actually from District 12, but part of a Covey that would travel around, performing and trying to earn money, until they were forced to stay.

Once Snow knows that he stands a chance at making Gray a victor, he risks everything to protect her while she’s in the games, which will later prove to be a big mistake for him. He is divided by his love for Gray, his controlling nature as a Snow and standing with the Capitol — a war that even he cannot win if he doesn’t pick a side. This desire to protect her creates additional changes to the way future Hunger Games work. In the games after, the tributes were well-fed and housed and some people could sponsor them. This created a game that was more entertaining for the viewers, and it even encouraged tributes to volunteer, since winning allowed them to gain money and fame.

This division between the Capitol and the districts happens to Sejanus, someone who is formerly from District 2 and is forced to live in the Capitol, where he happens to mentor someone he knew from District 2. He is forced to pick between staying alive in the Capitol or doing what’s right. He is often swayed by Snow, who tries to keep him alive because he knows there’s a great risk if he doesn’t. Not only would Snow lose any chance of getting the scholarship, but defying the capitol would prevent him from redefining the Snow legacy. He knows that Sejanus has the privilege of not caring about that, which is probably why he holds greater power in changing the rotting structure of the Capitol.

With both forms of media, there was a clearer picture of what served as useful for understanding the original trilogy — and what made it weaker. Collins shows when Snow’s hatred for District 12 bloomed. It wasn’t just his father’s death that acted as a catalyst, but it was his relationship with Gray and her use of the “mockingjay” that he ran away from. Not only do we see Gray perform “The Hanging Tree,” but we see the song’s origin and why it was used by District 12 during the rebellion in the third book, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay.” Katniss Everdeen’s performance of the song is what ultimately leads the revolution.

We also learn about the brutal nature of the first few Hunger Games, the original creator and the intention behind these games that evolved to be something more strikingly disgusting and inhumane. Once believed to be a form of punishing the people from the district, keeping them contained and reminding them of the war, Snow tells Dr. Gaul that it’s meant to expose the violent human nature that can only be controlled by the Capitol.

This violent human nature is ironically one that the Capitol isn’t unfamiliar with. Beyond the annual Hunger Games, this new installation shows Dr. Gual’s mutations: district people were tortured, used as animals to experiment on, given animal parts, got their tongues cut out and completely transformed into what the Capitol desired. Although the movie is PG-13, the book does not hold back on showing the darkest desires and actions of the Capitol.

The Capitol is not exposed for everything that it is, and the movie scratches the surface to barely shine a light on it. The book, on the other hand, takes its time to create a disturbing story, and it’s guaranteed to make you hungry to know more. Collins does an amazing job of giving readers a foundation of how the Hunger Games transformed throughout the years and how it moved from just seeing the brutal murders of these tributes to something that people watched as entertainment.

 

Written by: Elizabeth Woodhall — arts@theaggie.org

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