It’s too long, the deaths alarmingly gruesome for a young audience, and there’s no Jennifer Lawrence – but this Hunger Games prequel The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes had me unexpectedly entertained and intrigued throughout its 21/2 hours.
Adapting author Suzanne Collins’ 2020 prequel to the YA trilogy from 2008 and directed by Francis Lawrence who directed most of the previous franchise, the film take us back to the pre-Katniss Everdeen years of Panem’s dystopia, in which the citizens in the Capital live well while the impoverished “rebels” languish in the Districts.
After 10 years, the viewership for the eponymous gladiatorial tournament, in which innocent children from the Districts must fight each other to the death, is declining and Head Gamemaker Dr Volumnia Gaul (a gloriously theatrical Viola Davis) is desperate for a fix.
Panem’s tyrant-to-be Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth taking on the role played by Donald Sutherland in the trilogy) is matched with District 12 tribute Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) to be her mentor and steer her and the show to ratings success.
Written as it is for a young adult audience, the story may not be subtle but it is astute in holding a mirror to today’s preoccupations with influencer culture, audience engagement and how far content creators will go to get eyeballs.
There’s more than a hint of Simon Cowell in Pop Idol as Coriolanus realises that Lucy’s singing voice may not just prove her a winner, but secure him the payday he so badly wants.
Perhaps, the biggest surprise is that this fifth Hunger Games movie doesn’t need J-Law after all. Zegler, who played Maria in Spielberg’s West Side Story remake, has plenty of chutzpah as the titular songbird with an entrancing voice and an iron will. Blyth, too, exceeds expectations as young Corio on his Anakin Skywalker trajectory from nice to nasty.
Just as a good origin story should satisfy your desire to understand how something came to be, this one will leave you wanting to know what comes next.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, directed by Francis Lawrence, is in cinemas now.