Abby Asmuth

Warning: spoilers ahead!

Lionsgate knew what they were doing when they released “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” on Nov. 17, just as college students around the country were returning home for Thanksgiving. After all, what is Thanksgiving if not an opportunity to sit in your childhood bedroom and reminisce about simpler times gone by? In an attempt to fully embrace the time machine experience of the film, I brought my parents along with me, and we even returned to the same theater where I had watched the other installments of the franchise as a tween.

“Songbirds & Snakes,” based on a 2020 novel by Suzanne Collins, is set about 64 years before Katniss enters the arena, when a young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) is tasked with mentoring another District 12 tribute, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), as she competes in the 10th annual Hunger Games. The prologue follows Snow’s development from a kind hearted but ambitious student to a ruthless upstart on his path to becoming the villian we see in the later films. Though the film certainly delivers by way of nostalgia, it fails in its ultimate ambition to offer a cohesive portrait of this young man’s descent into evil.

The film introduces Snow as the last hope of his noble, but diminished family. In front of his posh Capitol classmates, he performs as one of them, shoving extra food in his pockets to secretly eat later and wearing a dress shirt adorned with beads that his cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer) fashioned from bathroom tiles. His only ally outside of his family is the principled and idealistic Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera). Juxtaposed with his snobby, entitled peers, Snow naturally earns the audience’s sympathy.

As Baird is introduced, defiantly making her way to the stage of the reaping ceremony, the stubborn echoes of Katniss come to life on screen. Smug as she sings in the face of death, Baird’s voice rings out through the tinny transmission into the Capitol auditorium where Snow and his classmates watch; the chemistry between these characters is somehow palpable before they have even met. A moment like this is the film at its best because it plays on all of the tropes that fans of this franchise love: star-crossed lovers, ill-stacked odds and a female protagonist who insists on playing by her own rules.

But before Baird opens her mouth, her costume, designed by Trish Summerville, speaks for itself. In contrast with the monotony and conformity of the other tributes’ downtrodden garb or even the clean cut uniforms of Capitol students like Snow, Baird’s colorfully kaleidoscopic skirt and intricately embroidered corset immediately mark her as the one to watch, someone who knows how to be noticed. Even as Baird fights for her life in the arena, her costume gets dirtier and degraded but nevertheless remains, becoming an embodiment of her undiminished spirit.

Blyth and Zegler are due praise for the first act of the film, during which they heighten the drama of their characters’ connection while also maintaining a mesmerizing ambiguity as to their true motivations. Leading up to the Games, the towering clean lines of the Capitol buildings and the panopticon-style classrooms of the academy are Snow’s arena, an equally fatal space disguised as civilized society. At this point in the film, Snow and Baird are positioned as reflections of one another. But both are masterful performers, and it is delightfully unclear to what extent they are also playing one another.

However, aside from the romantic cat and mouse game between Baird and Snow, the build up to the Games left something to be desired. It’s unsurprising that this earlier iteration of the Games would not entail the glitzy spectacle of later films, but it also failed to craft suspense which the competition could play out. The focus remained largely on Snow and Baird, so the audience knows little about the other tributes beyond vaguely sketched traits and allegiances.

As a result, the pathos of the Games fell flat. With limited information about the personalities or stories of the other tributes, the dynamic of the competition was a sanitized fight between the ‘good guys’— Baird, her fellow District 12 tribute Jessup Diggs (Nick Benson), as well as a few other underdogs — and everyone else. The film tried to counteract this lack of nuance by giving other tributes their moment in the spotlight, but throwing in dramatic displays of humanity felt like a patch up job, a lazy attempt to elicit an emotional response from the audience.

More interesting than the Games themselves was Snow’s own fight for survival outside of the arena. Every scene between Snow and the strange Head Gamemaker Dr. Volumina Gaul (Viola Davis) was crackling with dangerous electricity; she becomes his true mirror, a reflection of his darkening nature. The line between right and wrong wears increasingly thin as Snow schemes to ensure Baird’s victory, and the full cunning of his character is realized— cunning which can be lethal when pointed in your direction. At the end of the Games, Snow is on the precipice of evil, but he has not yet crossed the threshold.

The film falters most in its final act. In order to squeeze in Snow and Baird’s relationship as well as Snow’s fall from grace, it offers only spits and smatterings of plot detail and leaves the audience to fill in the rest. Snow, punished for cheating to save Baird, is sent to District 12 to serve out a term as a peacekeeper, and Sejanus accompanies him. There, Snow reunites with Baird, and the two have a fleeting realization of their love which is thwarted when Sejanus gets embroiled in an unclear rebellion plot that fails as quickly as it is introduced. Fearful of being implicated in the scheme, Snow betrays his best friend and leaves him to die at the hands of the peacekeepers.

Though I understand director Francis Lawrence’s impulse to foreground Rachel Zegler’s rich voice as much as possible, cutting out some of the musical performances in the latter part of the film would have given more space for the audience to ruminate on the pivotal moment when Snow uses his cunning against someone he loves instead of in their defense. In the aftermath of this betrayal, the hasty dissolution of Baird and Snow’s relationship gave me whiplash and lacked emotional force. I wanted to care about these characters, but I wasn’t given the time to. The film manages to end with a portrait of a hardened, loveless Snow restored to his position in the Capitol, but I was unsatisfied with how we got there.Though I found the film imperfect, it was still an enjoyable movie-watching experience because of my love for the franchise as a whole. Frankly, the film could have been incoherent mush, and I would have stayed for moments like the reaping ceremony when the spirit of the original movies flickered across the screen. From mentions of Katniss to the introduction of the Jabberjays along with a slew of other easter eggs, “Songbirds & Snakes” is a delightful complement to the “Hunger Games” pantheon despite its missteps.

Idone Rhodes is a junior in Pierson majoring in English and Film and Media Studies. She will be writing a regular film column for WKND. Rhodes was formerly a managing editor of the Yale Daily News Magazine.