Film Review: “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes”: Sowing the seeds of revolutionary hope

by Mason Ng

Over a decade ago, Suzanne Collins’ imagination of a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future took the world by storm — revolutionizing the young adult genre and birthing the massively successful “Hunger Games” franchise. Readers and viewers met their beloved heroine, Katniss Everdeen, as she braved the battle-royale-style games, eventually emerging as the symbolic figure of the rebellion against the authoritarian state of Panem. Today, to the delight of “Hunger Games” fans, Collins’ series prequel “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” was adapted to film, taking viewers 60 years in the past to the Hunger Games’ rickety beginnings and exploring the rise of Panem’s iron-fisted leadership.

The movie details the origins of President Coriolanus Snow, who later became the leader of Panem and an enemy of Katniss and the District Rebellion. To reestablish his family name and climb the political ranks of the Capitol, a young Coriolanus attempts to turn the then-unpopular games into a televised spectacle — mentoring Lucy Gray Baird, the promising “songbird” tribute from District 12. Throughout the psychological trauma and gore of the games, the two form an intimate connection fraught with loss, betrayal and the ever-present threat of the state. Like the original series, the prequel explores how a violent government oppresses its subjects with militarized control and indoctrination, forcing individuals to compromise their morals and humanity to survive.

Put simply, the highly-anticipated movie adaptation was nothing short of extraordinary. Despite the pressure of the original franchise’s critically acclaimed success and the star-studded cast of “Ballad,” the prequel exceeded audience expectations. Particular standouts include Tom Blyth’s clever interpretation of a morally corrupted Coriolanus Snow, Rachel Zegler’s enchanting acting and vocal performance as Lucy Gray, and Viola Davis as the delightfully villainous scientist and game maker, Dr. Volumnia Gaul. The world of Panem was brought to life by the set’s retro-futuristic architecture, which created a visually captivating experience and immersed viewers into a pre-Katniss dystopia. The worldbuilding was meticulous and dynamic — everything, down to the Capitol’s preliminary surveillance technology and the fashion of the tributes, emulated the novel’s descriptions of post-war Panem.

Aside from the superb technical elements, the film’s main strength was the intense emotional connection with its audience. Watching “Ballad” in a packed theater on opening night was a collective emotional rollercoaster — the gut-wrenching violence in the arena frequently elicited horrified gasps from viewers, and in times of suspense, the anticipation in the air was palpable. I often found myself gripping the armrests of my seat, my whole body tense with anxiety. I oscillated between being sick to my stomach, nervous to the point of tears and enraged by the selfishness of Coriolanus. “Ballad” was beyond entertaining, evoking fear, anger and empathy in its audience; to me, that is the defining characteristic of a successful film.

But the film adaptation offers its audience even more, namely a strong political commentary criticizing a heavily militarized, oppressive fascist state. It successfully communicates the novel’s theme: In a country ravaged by war and state surveillance, maintaining moral purity is nearly impossible. As in the Hunger Games arena, surviving in a fascist state becomes a matter of “kill or be killed,” forcing its subjects to sacrifice their humanity to live. “Ballad” does this by juxtaposing two opposing views of human nature: that of Coriolanus and Dr. Gaul, who argue that an intrinsic evil and animalistic brutality govern us, and that of Lucy Gray, who believes that humans are naturally good, and our life’s challenge is to preserve that moral goodness. Following Coriolanus’ theory is a valid reason for the Hunger Games; in his eyes, they remind Capitol and District citizens alike of this suppressed but ever-present evil that threatens even the most “civilized” individual. Thus, individuals need the state to establish control and order, effectively protecting people from themselves. Put in desperate life-or-death situations, Coriolanus notices this moral degradation in himself, eventually attributing his appetite for killing to human nature.

However, another interpretation emerges because the film is so clearly critical of his actions. Like his peers at the Academy, the elite school in the Capitol, he is a product of his oppressive environment. His aspirations and selfishness are shaped by ideological indoctrination, a collective indifference toward human suffering, and Panem’s values of authoritarian power and ultranationalism. When all he knows is a world of extreme state-sanctioned violence, how could he not believe in the innate brutality of humans? When the killing and dehumanization of the lower class (the Districts) is not only normalized but encouraged each year through the Games, how could he imagine otherwise? Ultimately, the state shoulders the blame for his devolution into the monster we witness in the original “Hunger Games.”

Compare Coriolanus with Lucy Gray, who was raised with the Covey, a musical group historically isolated from the Capitol and the Districts. Her upbringing, much less influenced by fascist ideology, allows her to see the human possibility for empathy and moral good. Her optimism carries revolutionary power — because the authoritarian state relies on its subjects’ complicity to maintain control, the belief in the possibility of a better future threatens its dominance. Like many modern-day revolutionaries, she expresses her dissent through art, singing about the people’s enduring spirit despite their oppression (one of her most poignant songs being “The Hanging Tree,” which would later become Katniss’ symbolic anthem). Lucy Gray’s musical resistance brews hope for a revolution, encouraging Panem citizens and the film’s audience to envision a radically different but brighter future.

Like the original “Hunger Games” movies, the prequel establishes itself as a stunning cinematic imagination of Collins’ novel, brought to life by impressive cast performances and a breathtaking set. And, like its predecessors, “Ballad” offers an allegorical criticism of the fascist state, inspiring its audience with a hope to fuel their resistance.

Featured Photo Courtesy of Murray Close for Lionsgate

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