The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes review – A limp prequel that dilutes its biggest villain

The original Hunger Games series was a “baby’s first revolutionary politics” phenomenon, dazzling swaths of young people first as a series of novels by Suzanne Collins, then as a quartet of films starring Jennifer Lawrence. Collins’s books were inspired by her own discomfort with the politics of spectacle that fuelled the Iraq War, an illusion of patriotism screened on 24/7 news channels. And now, just in time for the Hunger Games prequel film, we have an entirely new generation of disillusioned teens – young people who might see something recognisable in a story of demonisation and oppression, in which the well-heeled citizens of Panem’s Capitol call the masses, housed in 12 Districts, “animals” and pit them against each other.

Yet The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, directed by franchise regular Francis Lawrence, dilutes those messages beyond any practical use. It’s the origin story of Panem’s chief sociopath, president Coriolanus Snow (played by Donald Sutherland in the original films), that instead feels like the yassification of a future monster.

Collins’s source novel – released in 2020 – was her attempt to understand how a young man from once preeminent stock, orphaned and left to starve after a rebel assault on the Capitol, could be drawn towards ultimate evil. It never showed him sympathy, but forced the reader to linger inside his head, and see those merciless cogs at work. Yet, the film’s Coriolanus, played by British actor Tom Blyth, barely reads as manipulative let alone evil – a nepo baby with a light air of (former) privilege, perhaps, but without any premature malevolence or a stark, moral about-face. If this were one of Disney’s redemptive villain portraits, and all he’d done was put a princess into a coma, perhaps that’d be fine. But this is a guy who supposedly, six decades later, was torturing and poisoning people with wild abandon.

But if Coriolanus were anything other than a tortured anti-hero, it would have intruded on The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes’s primary aim: a Romeo-and-Juliet romance between Capitol citizen and Hunger Games tribute, between oppressor and oppressed. Coriolanus, as part of his academic education, is enlisted as a mentor to Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a tribute from District 12. In reality, she’s a member of the nomadic Covey, Panem’s version of the Romani people – a choice seemingly made only to stereotype her as a whimsical free spirit with a jaunty, country music spin. Lucy is the answer to a question nobody’s asked: “What would it be like if you dropped June Carter Cash into the Hunger Games?”

Lucy is pure theatre kid, dressed in a dainty, fairy gown with a freshly moisturised face; the rest of the tributes all look like baristas who’ve just been slammed face-first into a cow pat. It drains the games themselves of any intrigue, especially now that they’re limited to one, dusty arena. Any non-Lucy tribute is either foaming at the mouth or silent and stoic, so it’s fairly obvious what fates they’ve been assigned. Here, everything feels whittled down to make sure Coriolanus and Lucy have ample time to make goo-goo eyes at each other from either side of her prison bars.

We’re provided only brief relief whenever one of the film’s established stars struts on the scene: Viola Davis, as head gamemaker Dr Volumnia Gaul, is deliciously camp, in platform Dr Martens and red rubber gloves. Peter Dinklage, as games inventor Casca Highbottom, revels in ennui. Jason Schwartzman, as “weatherman and amateur magician” Lucretius Flickerman, lands some surprisingly good one-liners. Their performances hint at the true narcissism of Panem – something you’ll struggle to find in any of the limp, neutered romantics of The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes.

Dir: Francis Lawrence. Starring: Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Josh Andrés Rivera, Hunter Schafer, Jason Schwartzman, Peter Dinklage, Viola Davis. 12A, 157 minutes.

‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes’ is in cinemas from 17 November