© Lionsgate

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes review – A flawed but thoroughly engaging prequel

Set 64 years before the events of The Hunger Games films, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes shows us the games in one of its earliest forms and Coriolanus Snow’s gradual rise to power. For those who are fans of the series, the thought of a prequel being made, let alone one focusing on Snow, has been at the front of many people’s minds since the original four films came out. So, eight years after the release of Mockingjay Part 2, we get the prequel people have wanted to see, all helmed by Francis Lawrence, the director who brought the series to a close just under a decade ago. 

All of this seems like a recipe for another great Hunger Games film, and for the most part, it does pay off…but it’s not without its faults.

Firstly, the worldbuilding and visuals of Panem have never been as well realised as they are in this film. This is primarily down to having Lawrence back in the directing chair. After his work on Catching Fire and both halves of Mockingjay, Lawrence seems to fully grasp what makes Panem such a fascinating world to explore, how its inhabitants work within it, and how they react to the larger scale events that occur in and around the Capitol. 

His experience with the previous three entries has also helped him perfect the sequences set in the games themselves. As we are being shown the 10th annual Hunger Games, the setting for the arena is less elaborate and more stripped back than what we have come to know, resulting in much more brutal fighting amongst the contestants. This is well realised in the film with the right balance of profound quiet moments and gritty brawls with fast-moving camera work.

© Lionsgate

However, where the film truly shines is with its performances. Tom Blyth steals the show as a young Coriolanus Snow. He adds a lot of empathy to the character we never saw in the previous films, alongside a genuinely believable sense of moral conflict within himself. There are plenty of scenes throughout the film where his loyalty and ideologies are tested, and Blyth brings all the right emotions to the forefront at all the perfect points. 

Peter Dinklage and Viola Davis are also great as the maniacal and scheming Dean Casca Highbottom and Volumnia Gaul. Dinklage works wonders in his limited screen time, adding a lot of much-needed menace to his character, whilst Davis relishes in the over-the-top and conniving role she’s been given. Rachel Zegler is also solid as Lucy Gray Baird and works well when paired with Blyth, but for most other scenes, her character gets a little repetitive the more the film goes on. It’s nothing against her performance; it’s more to do with how her character is utilised in the later stages of the story.

In fact, the story and the pacing of it is the one key area in which the film struggles a bit. Unlike the past entries in the series, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is split into three distinct chapters, The Mentor, The Prize and The Peacekeeper. The first chapter starts off strong and instantly pulls you into its characters and central plot. The second chapter, where the titular games take place, maintains the same pacing as the first chapter but heightens the tension and drama in very compelling ways. The story is constantly twisting and turning here, always finding new paths that keep you on the edge of your seat. Then chapter three happens. It starts off well enough, but unfortunately the pace of the film is what takes a hit during this final section. It doesn’t grind to a halt, but instead takes the momentum found in the first two chapters and deviates in a way that is initially somewhat interesting but sacrifices a lot of the energy and intrigue that the film was relishing in at the beginning.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes isn’t a clean home run for the franchise, but it is still a strong entry. If it wasn’t for Lawrence’s fantastic direction and a committed cast to the story, then I don’t think this film would be as good as it is. It’s a shame it starts falling apart in its final moments.

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes review – A flawed but thoroughly engaging prequel

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