Hunger Games - The Ballad of the Serpent and the Songbird: a successful prequel (review)

Hunger Games – The Ballad of the Serpent and the Songbird: a successful prequel (review)

Francis Lawrence goes back in time with this prequel focused on the figure of Coriolanus Snow. And his way of telling the story behind the scenes of entertainment society makes it resonate strongly with our current times.

More than a decade ago, the first part of the saga Hunger Games, adaptation of the successful novels of the same name, was released in cinemas. We then discovered the character of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), first survivor of the massacre game, then leader of the rebellion against the tyrannical government of Panem and its president, Coriolanus Snow, the character who is at the heart of this prequel to the saga. Adapted from the new novel of the same name by Suzanne Collins, published in 2020, it takes place 64 years before the advent of Katniss, while the Hungers Games are only in their tenth edition. Young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) is one of the Capitol’s brightest students and his one and only goal is to obtain the prestigious Plinth Prize in order to enter university and restore the name of his disgraced family.

This year nevertheless promises to be special since Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis), Judge and Minister of War, and Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage) the creator of the Games, announce that for the first time in 10 years, the privileged young people of the Capitol will be assigned a Tribute. Responsible for these young men and women offered as sacrifices to kill each other in the arena, they will have to do everything to make them popular in the eyes of the public. Coriolanus Snow thus becomes the mentor of Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), tribute from District 12. A traveling musician and singer, charismatic and independent, who immediately conquered the crowd, becoming for Snow a valuable asset to climb the ladder.

With the current explosion of sequels, prequels and other spin-offs, not settling for a product that is too subservient to the goodwill of the fans appears to be quite a challenge. With its plot split into three acts, The Ballad of the Serpent and the Songbird skilfully avoids this trap by revealing to the viewer the other side of the Games, the evolution of the Hungers Games from a tool of terror to a perverse spectacle, where each of the members of the first generation of mentors sets up strategies for promoting their Tributes and of television staging which will allow the Games to regain popularity after a decline in public interest. This way of dealing with the society of spectacle and its excesses hits the mark by resonating with today’s world. By recounting the development of methods of media manipulation specific to authoritarian regimes and by taking the decision to show behind the scenes of the Games from the side of the tyrants, of those who enjoy the privileges won in blood, Lawrence also shows us the making of a dystopia.

The central character of this story, young Coriolanus Snow, is treated intelligently and his logical evolution towards his status as “big bad” is not overrated, on the contrary. Never taking the easy route, the character does not darken because of trauma, like many supervillains, but because of his deep selfishness. Everything Snow does, good or bad, he only does to get what he wants. He wants victory, status, and love, so he’ll do whatever it takes to get all three…at any cost. Within an architecture borrowed from totalitarian regimes, The Ballad of the Serpent and the Songbird approaches a sort of neo-antique myth, prefiguring the horrible modernity of the next Hunger Games under the aegis by Coriolanus Snow.

But what is also striking in this prequel is the internal struggle that takes place between the film format and the serial format. The story would clearly have benefited from being treated in the form of episodes as its construction and its characters tend towards this division. But despite frustrations over details that we would like to see explored further, Hunger Games: The Ballad of the Serpent and the Songbird remains a precisely executed spectacle. The question remains: are you willing to die for the Game?

By Francis Lawrence. With Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Viola Davis… Duration: 2h37. Released November 15, 2023

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