The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
NOTE: I’m assuming a fairly intermediate level of familiarity with the Hunger Games world, history, and general story. If the names and vocabulary are confusing, Google is your friend.
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers, for the movie as well as the book. Earlier thoughts on the book can be found here.
TL;DR: I still don’t see the point of the story, but the singing is nice.
Well, here’s something I already knew but sort of wish weren’t true: I may be a deeply cynical Millennial, but I also have completely unfettered access to the drooling idiot fangirl lizard part of my brain. In this case the drooling fangirl lizard broke out of her cage in time for the movie edition of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (Suzanne Collins), which to be perfectly honest is not my favorite book even though it’s permanently camped out in my head. All the same, there is something hypnotic about seeing the characters you know come to life on the screen. For some reason currently unknown, the Hunger Games series has a way of bringing me back again and again and again: I will go to my grave swearing that the prequel is a solid three stars and no higher, and yet I dragged the ever-patient Michaella out to watch the movie on opening weekend, and I also bought a Hunger Games magazine just prior to watching the movie. This is deeply disturbing and not even slightly compatible with the most basic tenet of the series, but more on that later.
The movie opens during the Dark Days, three years before the first annual Hunger Games. Five-year-old Coriolanus Snow (Dexter Sol Ansell) and his eight-year-old cousin Tigris (Rosa Gotzler) go out to forage for food in the dead of a cold winter night, but just barely escape the notice of Nero Price, a railroad titan who combats his own starvation by sawing the leg off a dead woman in the middle of the street. Shaken but unhurt, the children manage to get home, where their grandmother (“Grandma’am”; Fionnula Flanagan) tells them that Coriolanus’s father has died in the war, leaving Coriolanus with only his compass as a keepsake. After his death, the once-mighty Snow family – now limited to the Grandma’am, Tigris, and Coriolanus – slides into genteel poverty with the bombing of their munitions factories in District 13. Given their complete lack of other assets, they have very little money for day-to-day necessities, and are currently facing the prospect of eviction from their Capitol penthouse.
Thirteen years later, 18-year-old Coriolanus (Tom Blyth) has become one of the top 24 students in his graduating class at the Academy, a secondary school that educates the children of the Capitol elite. His family has managed to squeak by over the last several years solely because the tuitionless Academy provides his uniform, supplies, and lunches, but all such assistance will end when he enters university. He therefore wakes up on the morning of the Reaping for the 10th annual Hunger Games in eager anticipation of the Plinth Prize, an annual scholarship awarded to the Academy graduate with the highest grades. He expects to receive the prize following his stellar performance at the Academy, but is unpleasantly surprised when morphling-addicted Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), Academy dean and creator of the Hunger Games, announces that the Plinth Prize has acquired an extra wrinkle: the 24 finalists will now be required to mentor the incoming tributes for the Hunger Games, and the best mentor will be awarded the prize. Though it initially seems like the prize will go by default to the student with the winning tribute, Highbottom clarifies that the winner will be chosen based on their tribute’s memorability in the Games. The mentor program is an attempt to nullify the gloom that habitually accompanies the Games, supervised by Head Gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis), who tasks the students with finding ways to engage the audience.
Already reeling from the loss of the Plinth Prize, Coriolanus is doubly outraged when Highbottom assigns him the female tribute from District 12, which has never produced a winning tribute. His declining prospects get a boost when District 12’s Mayor Lipp fixes the Reaping to send 16-year-old Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), the lead singer of a local band called the Covey, to the Games. Though her death is all but ensured, Lucy Gray easily captures the Capitol’s attention when she drops a snake down the dress of the mayor’s daughter, Mayfair (Isobel Jesper Jones). The mayor physically assaults her when she reaches the platform, but she manages to hold everyone’s attention with a defiant song, after which she and her District partner, Jessup Diggs (Nick Benson), are shipped to the Capitol along with the other 22 tributes. Their most dangerous competitors include the District 4 tributes, Coral (Mackenzie Lansing) and Mizzen (Cooper Dillon); the District 7 tributes, Lamina (Irene Boehm) and Treech (Hiroki Berrecloth); Bobbin (Knox Gibson), the bloodthirsty male tribute from District 8; Tanner (Kjell Brutscheidt), the male tribute from District 10; and Reaper Ash (Dimitri Abold), the male tribute from District 11. Knowing that they have very little chance of survival, Lucy Gray and Jessup team up, figuring they can at least go down together.
Meanwhile, Coriolanus and his classmates are alternately grilled and terrorized by Dr. Gaul, who seems to view them as conveniently expendable interns and lab rats. Coriolanus’s attempts to connect with Lucy Gray go well – he gives her his school lunch when she asks for food, and later smuggles her rat poison to use against the other tributes – but his struggles are compounded by his unwitting association with Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera), a District-born classmate who has never quite fit in with the Capitol children. His already precarious world grows more threatening first when fellow mentor Arachne Crane (Lilly Cooper) is murdered by her tribute, then again when Dr. Gaul catches his class partner Clemensia Dovecote (Ashley Liao) lying about her contribution to a joint project and sics a tankful of venomous snakes on her. With Arachne dead and Clemensia hospitalized, the Capitol tries to keep up appearances by rolling ahead with both the Games and the mentor project, but the seemingly straightforward assignment becomes intensely personal when Coriolanus is forced to venture into the arena to save Sejanus from a very well-intentioned suicide mission. Their misadventure ends with Coriolanus brutally beating Bobbin to death during their escape, and, though he is haunted by this murder, he also realizes that it made him feel powerful.
After this disturbing night, things in the arena quickly unravel: Jessup dies, having contracted rabies during the journey to the Capitol, while Coral and her pack stalk Lucy Gray, whose popularity they resent. Lucy Gray survives every encounter with the pack and manages to poison their water supply, but then watches with horror as the poisoned water is mistakenly drunk by Reaper’s district partner, Dill (Luna Steeples), who dies at once. Maddened with grief upon finding Dill’s body, Reaper collects all of the dead tributes and covers them with the flag of Panem, openly daring the Capitol to punish him just before Dr. Gaul interrupts the live arena feed to announce the death of Felix Ravinstill (Aamer Husain), son of the president of Panem. As retribution, she promises to bring a rainbow of death down upon the surviving tributes, even if it means there will be no winner. Realizing she means to kill the tributes using the same snakes she set on Clemensia, Coriolanus runs to her lab and sneaks his handkerchief into the snake tank, knowing that it carries Lucy Gray’s scent and should therefore prevent the snakes from attacking her. Returning to his post, he watches as Lucy Gray goes unbitten while the rest of the tributes are swarmed and killed by the snakes. Despite his pleas, Dr. Gaul refuses to end the Games until Tigris (Hunter Schafer) turns the audience against her, leading the demand to name Lucy Gray the winner.
Goaded by Coriolanus’s reminder that no one will watch the Games if a winner is not guaranteed, Dr. Gaul finally agrees to release Lucy Gray, but gets the last laugh – in a manner of speaking – when Dean Highbottom expels Coriolanus from the Capitol as punishment for both the rat poison and the handkerchief. Sentenced to a 20-year stint as a Peacekeeper, Coriolanus spends his last dollars to bribe his way to District 12. He is joined by Sejanus, who was also expelled following his foray into the arena, and together they try to settle into their new lives. While Coriolanus is mostly interested in pursuing his relationship with Lucy Gray, however, Sejanus chafes at the injustices inflicted upon the locals by the Peacekeepers. His growing disquiet leads him to fall in with a group of accused rebels, which then leads to the shooting deaths of Mayfair Lipp and Billy Taupe (Dakota Shapiro), Lucy Gray’s treacherous ex-boyfriend. His road ends at the gallows when Coriolanus turns him in, not wanting to be mistaken for a rebel sympathizer. Yet even Sejanus’s death isn’t enough to quell Coriolanus’s terror at the prospect of getting ID’d as Mayfair’s murderer, and he soon hatches a desperate plot to escape with Lucy Gray to the north, where people are rumored to live free of the Capitol’s influence.
You’d think this would be enough, but Coriolanus is, of course, the biggest villain in recent Panem history, even if he doesn’t know it yet, and neither book nor movie can end with him running away into the sunset. Thus, he spirals violently when Lucy Gray jokingly suggests that she is the only loose end linking him to Mayfair’s death, and his uncontrollable paranoia leads him to shoot up the woods in an apparently failed attempt to eliminate his final loose end. While Lucy Gray disappears without a trace, leaving behind only snatches of her voice in fragments sung by the local mockingjays, Coriolanus returns to the Peacekeepers. His intention is to report to District 2 for officer training, but he is instead taken to the Capitol, where Dr. Gaul tells him that she has gotten the president to pardon him for his cheating in the Games, and that his university fees will be paid by Sejanus’s father (who does not, obviously, know that Coriolanus sent Sejanus to his death). Finally, with his wealth restored and his family well provided for, Coriolanus visits Dean Highbottom and slips him a bottle of morphling spiked with rat poison. While Highbottom dies alone, Coriolanus steps into his new life as Snow, heir to the Plinth munitions empire and future president of Panem. In a haunting revenge ballad at the end of all things, Lucy Gray taunts Snow seemingly from another plane of existence, telling him he will never be allowed to forget her.
I struggled a bit on the rating, chiefly because I didn’t feel quite right rating the movie higher than the book when I have some issues with the timeline and the character relationships. Yet in the end that is in fact what happened, and I’m not mad. This is a solid adaptation. The cast is strong, and the costumes and set design are excellent. I am particularly grateful for a Lucy Gray who is actually a proven singer. Rachel Zegler’s voice is spectacular, her performance magnetic. I thought her delivery was a little fast with respect to the dialogue, but, since this happens consistently, it is entirely possible that this is just how the character is supposed to talk. The team did an amazing job with the songs written into the book; my only complaint is that I really would have liked to have heard more. I was waiting to hear the valley song sung by Lucy Gray in the zoo and then again during the Covey’s first show in District 12, and it was disappointing to realize it got cut. I also liked Viola Davis, who is a wonderfully creepy Dr. Gaul, and Tom Blyth ably captures the dichotomy between Coriolanus’s goodness – however small it may be – and his worst impulses, which ultimately lead him down a darker path.
That being said: I don’t agree with every change the movie made. If I start enumerating the differences between the book and the movie we’ll be here all day, so I’m not going to bother, but I don’t think the movie conveys Coriolanus’s all-consuming need for control, which generally manifests as a crippling paranoia that overwhelms all his other senses to the point that shooting up a random patch of woodlands seems quite reasonable. After two viewings, I’m still not convinced that his rapid spiral into fury and violence is intelligible to anyone who didn’t read the book. I can see what they’re trying to do because I have read the book three times and listened to the audiobook, both in whole and in part, more times than I can count. I know his exact thought process, and I know that it’s not as sudden as it looks in the movie. It’s not that the movie flips a switch – there are hints of his darker side coming out, particularly when he murders Bobbin while protesting that he doesn’t want to hurt him – but, aside from the Nero Price scene, the movie doesn’t dive into the trauma that shaped him, nor the time Dr. Gaul spends pulling out the worst of him and weaponizing it against her own country. He has a handful of conversations with Dr. Gaul, but her hand is less evident in his development as he begins to diverge from the example set for him by Tigris, who is and always has been a gentle soul. The movie could just as easily have been named The Summer I Turned Crazy, and it still would’ve worked. (The book would be more like The Summer Dr. Gaul Turned Me Crazy.)
This, to me, is a rather large omission when the book spent over 500 pages bouncing Coriolanus’s good side off of his bad side and making him split the difference. And, as much as I hate to admit it because it still doesn’t excuse what he becomes, book Coriolanus does have a softer side. Despite his ulterior motives in his relationship with Lucy Gray, he sincerely cares about her well-being, and he is actually a decent mentor to her. (I mean, she survives, doesn’t she?) Even when he becomes a Peacekeeper and has nothing more to gain from her continued survival, he makes a point to spend time with her, and is mature enough to know that he can’t afford to hold petty grudges when their time together is so limited. (You know, before he goes crazy.) He loves his grandmother and his cousin. He cherishes the memory of his mother, who died in childbirth when he was very young; her death is one of the major traumas that inform his development, and he regularly uses the scent of her rose powder to calm himself, which works quite well until it doesn’t. As much as he despises the Plinths, he still shows a hint of genuine kindness to Sejanus’s mother, comforting her when she tells him about her worries for her only child.
While I realize the Plinth parents don’t seem particularly significant in the grand scheme of things, Coriolanus’s relationship with Ma Plinth should not have been cut completely, if only because it showed him a slim chance of redemption before he descended into unapologetically self-serving manipulation. Even if she isn’t a prominent character, she still matters; likewise Strabo Plinth, who becomes a major figure in Snow’s life. The movie makes sure to state plainly that the Plinths adopt Snow as their heir in tribute to his friendship with Sejanus, but this doesn’t seem like much of a reason when he never speaks to either one of them. And, though his family’s lack of means is definitely a major theme throughout the film, it is presented as his main motive. Yes, book Coriolanus is obsessed with making money – his poverty is not figurative. But he is motivated by poverty and war trauma and jealousy and a need for control and the desire for power and a generalized fear of anarchic chaos, which starts as a spark but is blown into flame by Dr. Gaul’s lessons. At the end of the movie he tells Dr. Gaul that the whole world is an arena, and that he now realizes that the people need the Capitol to keep running the Hunger Games to avoid total anarchy; without the context of the book, however, I would not have known how much his personal ideologies naturally align with Dr. Gaul’s.
I was similarly disappointed with Coriolanus’s relationships with his fellow mentors, which are acrimonious at best and nonexistent at worst. The movie accurately captures the catty backbiting and bitchy rivalries – Sejanus has more of an edge than he does in the book, which is honestly kind of nice – but it fails to include the genuine camaraderie shown in the book. If they had been strangers, that would have been one thing. But these are 24 teenagers who have grown up in each other’s back pockets. They have known each other all their lives and have for the most part at least pretended to get along, but the movie makes it seem like Coriolanus has no friends. Festus Creed (Max Raphael), one of Coriolanus’s dearest friends in the book, is a bitter rival in the movie. Clemensia is a lot more dishonestly cutthroat than I would have liked, which is at complete odds with her characterization in the book, and even the kind-hearted Lysistrata Vickers (Zoe Renee) barely seems to have any sort of relationship with Coriolanus, though he does address her as “Lyssie.” I would have liked to have seen the bonds that grew between the mentors as they navigated their unaccustomed roles together, or – even better – the bonds that unexpectedly bloomed between mentors and tributes. We never know how Jessup feels about Lysistrata, but we do know that Lysistrata becomes quite attached to him, bringing him medicine and food and trying to honor his wishes even when these run counter to her ability to win the Hunger Games. He saves her life without a second thought when the arena is bombed, and she genuinely grieves when he dies. Human connection and unlikely friendships are the backbone of the Hunger Games series, and I feel like the movie missed out on that.
And, though this presumably was not the intention of the filmmakers, the relationships between the mentors are so tenuous, and the majority of the mentors receive so little screentime, that the mini Hunger Games that takes place among Coriolanus’s classmates doesn’t come through in the movie. Upbeat twins Apollo and Diana Ring are mentioned in the credits, but I never saw them, and I suspect I would have to watch the background like a hawk if I wanted to catch a glimpse of them. Their deaths in the arena bombing go completely unremarked, as do the deaths of their District 6 tributes, and it isn’t clear that both the tribute and mentor pools are supposed to be seriously diminished by the time the Games officially start. Likewise, Clemensia disappears after the snake attack and is never seen again, though I was really looking forward to her transformation. Even the death of Felix Ravinstill doesn’t make much of a mark, again, because he has so little screentime. (It’s worth noting that Felix is President Ravinstill’s nephew in the book, and he makes it to the end completely unscathed. In the movie he swaps places with Coriolanus’s friend Gaius Breen, who dies in the book.)
This ties into a slight irritation I had with the film in general, which is that Coriolanus is the unironic star of the show. One of the book’s strengths is its host of side characters, who make 520 pages of The Trials and Tribulations of a Future Dictator much more interesting than it would otherwise have been. Sometimes they support Coriolanus and other times they try to cut him down, but they all have ideas of their own. Book Lysistrata volunteers to save Lucy Gray from Jessup; movie Lysistrata has to be begged, and there’s no feeling of partnership between her and Coriolanus. Coriolanus spontaneously suggests the tribute betting system, which he does in the book as well, except the thread of the idea comes from Festus. At the zoo, he steals book Sejanus’s idea of feeding his tribute. Bringing food to the tributes is the one good thing book Sejanus does that doesn’t have serious consequences, and I really hate that movie Coriolanus takes that from him. Even Lucy Gray’s role is reduced to make room for Coriolanus: the rest of the Covey are barely seen and speak very little, and Lucy Gray herself doesn’t get to do as much as she does in the book, because the timeline got majorly crunched. I know why they had to cut down on Reaper’s morgue and eventual death, but it feels like they’re missing a trick when the morgue was a spiritual precursor to Peeta’s painting of Rue. I wish at the very least that they had spent more time on the interview, which is perhaps the most disappointing moment in the film – not because of Lucy Gray’s ballad, which is perfectly adapted and beautifully sung, but because it’s not the showstopping moment it is in the book. The movie skates right through it, and it doesn’t have the impact that it should have.
Yet at the same time, I have to wonder if our collective 15-year obsession with the world of the Hunger Games – mine included, I mean, look at how much I’ve just written, JFC – is as innocuous as it seems. The Hunger Games tries to do many things, and certainly grabbing cash by dragging out the series is one of them, but I think most of us can agree that the entire premise boils down to one very simple message: “Hunger Games bad.” I might even venture to add “Hunger Games not helpful.” Why, then, are we still so fascinated with the Games themselves? Because I can almost guarantee that nobody went to the theater for Snow’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad summer. If we had, the movie would not have bothered punching up the Games scenes as much as it did. The first half of the movie is more tightly told and carefully shot than the second half, which throws transitions to the winds and starts time-hopping like it’s 2019 Westeros. The Games are the selling point for the series, and the filmmakers know it. I don’t believe this was Collins’s original intention when she set out to write the first book, but it is deeply disturbing, and it misses the whole point of the story. It’s as if we are a world of Capitols, as Coriolanus actually does point out in the book, eagerly awaiting the next Games, the next tributes, the next victor. (But also, why is the Snows’ penthouse so ugly?)
All of this leads me back to the same question I had throughout the book: Why does Snow deserve the airtime? If the cautionary message in the book was too late in 2020, it’s even less timely three years later. I’m not even sure what the takeaway was supposed to be for either work when Snow is exposed to both good and bad influences through the few months that we know him. There is no point in his story at which I could theoretically stage an intervention because he’s so reserved that no one besides Tigris knows about Dr. Gaul’s grooming sessions, and believe me, she does try to nudge him towards a healthier mindset. The battle for his soul seems so futile when we already know that his path ends with him getting torn to pieces by a shrieking mob at the end of Mockingjay, though if I can take a minute to be absolutely petty I will admit that it was shamefully satisfying to watch Coriolanus beat the stuffing out of Billy Taupe.
Certainly both movie and book offer a bit of context for the original series, such as the adult Snow’s obsession with making money by any means possible, his obsession with personally destroying Katniss, his obsession with keeping the Games running, yada yada yada. I could reread the book, then reread the original trilogy, probably without any blips in continuity. Still, Songbirds & Snakes doesn’t feel like a genuine prequel when it is so coyly entwined with Katniss’s story. After all of the effort that went into really hammering home the idea that Katniss is a storm of memories specifically tailored to Snow’s worst nightmares, his childhood traumas and crimes seem almost disingenuous. And it’s not that that couldn’t possibly happen in real life, of course, when history has amply demonstrated that dictators have an unfortunate habit of creating their own worst enemies, but it’s still slightly too convenient for my tastes.
All in all – and despite the review I just wrote, which looks to be about as long as War and Peace – I liked the movie. I will rewatch it when it streams and buy it on DVD, because I’m trash and I don’t actually match my own highfalutin ideals most of the time. (Look, I like to call principles a “nice to have.”) A lot of the nuances from the book got skipped and some of the transitions were jarringly abrupt, but, well, that’s what happens when a 520-page book gets crammed into a 2 1/2-hour movie, though if anybody gets it into their head to make a six-hour adaptation complete with every song in the book I’ll be the first in line to buy tickets. Even if I low-key think the story might have benefitted from a second movie, I am equally glad I don’t have to traipse back to the theater in another couple of years. Overall, I think the filmmakers made a very fine adaptation of some difficult material, and I am grateful enough for that.
I Wanted To Rewrite My Book Review But I Calmed Down Long Enough To Negotiate With My OCD And This Was The Result
My review style has mega-changed over the years I’ve been spewing all my thoughts on the internet, with the result that I am no longer satisfied with my book review and have not been for probably at least a year. Now: I stand by everything I said in that review, but I would now like to add some extra details, such as the fact that the book keeps hooking me in because it is the perfect combo of school setting and detailed meal descriptions, and if you’ve been following my Redwall review series you probably know that I am a dirty ho for detailed meal descriptions. I will never say “no” to a scene with fried baloney.
This is all old news, because the real reason I hopped on to post an addendum to my book review is that Sejanus makes me crazy. I feel for the guy. I really do. He is so full of compassion for absolutely everybody, and it hurts my heart to watch Coriolanus take advantage of that for 520 pages. However, he is also impulsive and results-driven, and he doesn’t have the patience to sit through the process of making the world a genuinely better place. If he doesn’t get results immediately, he hops into another crazy plan that has the potential to get him killed and/or get his family in trouble, and he never once thinks through the consequences. He is, in some ways, as selfish as Coriolanus, though of course their motives and goals are different. The result is that all of his world-bettering schemes come across as largely performative. I feel like if he really wanted to change the world, he would sit down, shut up, work his way into power, and shut down the Hunger Games for good when he becomes the president. Coriolanus literally suggests that he use his father’s munitions money for good when he comes into his inheritance. The door was opened, and he never walked through it. Yes, more people would have died, but he could still have made a difference. Instead he gets a bunch of people killed, and then he tries to run away to the north and away from his mistakes, and I want to kick him.
As a side note for the movie: while I love Viola Davis’s performance and cannot imagine a better Dr. Gaul, the character was more chilling in the book because she did not give a fuck. Movie Gaul gives Clemensia a chance to recant her lies and back away from the snake tank by telling her in advance that the snakes will attack anyone whose sent they don’t recognize. Book Gaul waited until Clemensia was elbow-deep in snakes before she let on that anything could go wrong. (Still, as I say, Viola Davis is the perfect Gaul.)