Monday, March 4, 2024

Movie Review: ‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes’ Vividly Portrays Dystopia

Director: Francis Lawrence
Writers: Michael Lesslie, Michael Arndt, and Suzanne Collins
Stars: Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Viola Davis

Synopsis: Coriolanus Snow mentors and develops feelings for the female District 12 tribute during the 10th Hunger Games.

On July 17, 2019, Suzanne Collins, the acclaimed author of The Hunger Games series, announced a new addition set to be released the following year. While her announcement excited many fans, the idea of exploring the rise of President Snow 64 years before the first novel puzzled some. Fans were curious about the decision to focus on a villain’s origin story rather than diving into the games of other beloved characters like Finnick, Johanna, or Haymitch.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was released on May 19, 2020, offering a compelling read during the pandemic. Any initial confusion about the chosen narrative was swiftly addressed by the author’s justification for the story. The narrative delves into how a violent and totalitarian government can mold an individual with an elevated ego into someone who exploits systems and the world around them, ingeniously oppressing others during the process of their rise to power. Despite pandemic-related delays, the film adaptation hit theaters, effectively translating this chilling narrative. It goes beyond a mere villain origin story to provide a stellar exploration of The Hunger Games world, delivering a chillingly realistic portrayal of how close this fictional world could come to reality.

In the early days of Panem, the Hunger Games experienced a decline in popularity among Capitol citizens, both in viewership and overall appeal. To revive interest, 24 young Capitol Academy students are assigned to mentor a tribute. A young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) is paired with District 12 tribute Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), and as the narrative unfolds from the reaping ceremony to preparations for the games, the games themselves, and the extensive aftermath, Snow gradually develops feelings for her.

While the book follows a familiar pattern seen in other Hunger Games novels, adapting this comprehensive narrative into a single film proves challenging. Memories of the bloated Mockingjay Part 1 and Part 2 films from nearly a decade ago, which significantly slowed the overall series momentum, linger. Fortunately, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes avoids this pitfall by condensing the entire story into a single two-and-a-half-hour film. However, it isn’t without its own drawbacks.

Structured into three parts, mirroring the format of the other novels, the film’s first two sections focus on the Hunger Games, while the third explores the repercussions faced by Snow. While each segment contributes to the narrative, transitioning from one tone to another proves arduous. The film’s length becomes noticeable during this third act, emerging as a significant drawback. The pacing slows down substantially, creating a stark and challenging shift from the tense and faster-paced style established in the Games. Once this narrative phase settles in, adapting to the film’s different style becomes easier. However, by the time this adjustment occurs, it’s already nearly two hours into the film, with another half-hour or 45 minutes left. Feeling the length becomes pronounced during this section, putting the viewer’s endurance to the test.

The film excels in vividly portraying the dystopian world that the inhabitants of futuristic Panem must navigate to survive. A stark contrast is evident between the early days of the Hunger Games, with tributes thrown into an amphitheater-like arena where games typically lasted only a day or two. The intricacies of Snow’s strategic maneuvers to achieve his goals, employing both moral and selfishly immoral means, present a captivating thought experiment. This is the kind of film that prompts viewers to engage in extensive discussions for days, offering sustained enjoyment even after leaving the theater.

The production maintains top-notch quality, rivaling the standout film of the original trilogy, Catching Fire. Hunter Schaffer and Viola Davis, in particular, distinguish themselves in the ensemble cast, while Tom Blythe and Rachel Zegler deliver commendable performances in the lead roles. However, condensing a substantial amount of material into a single film inevitably leads to some sacrifices in character development, resulting in several characters appearing more one-dimensional than desired. Notably, Snow himself assumes an almost protagonist role in the film, deviating from the morally complex character familiar to readers. For those who have only seen the films in the series, the connection from this version of Snow to the older one seen as president becomes almost incomprehensible.

Josh Andres Rivera’s character, Sejanus Plinth, Snow’s best friend, bears the brunt of these changes and transforms into an almost unbearable and annoying character as his actions become increasingly frustrating to follow. This transformation is a notable drawback arising from the challenge of compressing the narrative.

While The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes has its drawbacks, notably its extended length and some minor character adaptations that may come across as slight, the film still delivers rich entertainment suitable for a diverse audience. It reaffirms the film series’ popularity and its enduring presence in popular culture. The most intriguing aspect of the film lies in the underlying themes it attempts to convey, using the overarching plot as a digestible medium for these ideas. Timed for release during the Thanksgiving holiday, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes stands out as an ideal entertainment choice for those seeking an escape from home, quality time with family, or a blockbuster film experience at the theater.

Grade: B+

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