Striking while the adaptive process of teen fiction is still warm, another edition of The Hunger Games is bound to work. Origin stories, prequels and updates to the worlds which captured the minds of millions now old enough to enjoy the songs of Olivia Rodrigo on end credit sections are ripe for the financial picking. The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is one of many to do so, and further still another in a long litany of titles this year using the word “ballad” without truly knowing what it means. The Ballad of Darren and The Ballad of a Bystander were, if frustrating, sparingly short titles. Not for the Suzanna Collins-produced piece here though, an origin story which spins so many plates it cannot act surprised when they all crash to the floor.
Nabbing director Francis Lawrence for another piece of The Hunger Games history, if anything, draws the major problems of earlier works in the series. Worldbuilding is not his forte, as seen by the comings and goings of barely memorable characters, bumped off or in one instance completely forgotten about, their fate neither sealed nor secure. Comparisons to The Hunger Games and the Jennifer Lawrence portrayed Katniss are as on the nose as expected for an adaptation of teen fiction but there is much to enjoy before the third act fallout. Breaking this one up into chapters makes little sense and has no impact on the narrative flow beyond making it painfully clear where and when future president Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) is changing his mind on major events.
Blyth is a solid draw for this and leads the narrative well alongside some familiar faces whose supporting works are understudied but impactful. Peter Dinklage as the drunken former friend of Coriolanus’ father is a fine piece of work and an electric Jason Schwartzman as a fame-hungry weatherman is a lovely addition. But beyond this, from the manic turn Viola Davis brings to the table and the rebellion-minded portrayal from Josh Andrés Rivera, there is little else to cough up. Narratively, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes has no idea what to do with itself. It sets up the backstory of Snow, forgets a bulk of meaty details and spends more time on drawing comparisons between Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) and Katniss than it does crafting an interesting narrative spectacle. Slice off the final third of the film and nothing truly changes.
As plodding as The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes can be, it is an enjoyable watch. Those who read the books or even grew up on the films will find more than enough here to pass the time. Entering the games, a main staple of the first and swiftly shoved to the side for character-driven drama in later instalments, is still underutilised but the build-up to them is enjoyable. For a feature which hopes to bring about the importance of supporters on the outside watching the games, there is very little time taken to humanise these new characters – who are all but forgotten once the consistency of Snow using them to his advantage, time and time again, is established.