More than a decade after Jennifer Lawrence brought life to Katniss Everdeen and the world of Panem in The Hunger Games, Rachel Zegler is about to make her debut in the universe as Lucy Gray Baird when The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes hits theaters on November 17th. Critics have seen the prequel — which was adapted from the book of the same name — and while most commend the performances of its leads, many are quick to point out the flaws of its story.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes serves as an origin story for Coriolanus Snow, Panem’s tyrannical president. However, in the prequel he is still 18-year-old Coryo, played by Tom Blyth, who is assigned to mentor District 12 tribute Lucy Gray in the 10th Hunger Games. Early reactions had people calling the prequel the best in the series, so let’s see what critics are saying now that they can expand on those opinions. In CinemaBlend’s review of The Hunger Games: The Ballad Of Songbirds and Snakes, Sarah El-Mahmoud says there’s some excellent world-building despite some textbook prequel traps. She rates it 3.5 stars out of 5, writing:
If you push the tired prequel tropes aside, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a rather triumphant comeback for The Hunger Games franchise that ups the stakes from the original films and dives deeper into the storytelling from a welcome new angle. Perhaps the best answer to the villain question the movie delves into is that anyone can become a villain; it's just the circumstances that make them are simply not as satisfying as the hero’s journey that unfolds in parallel.
Kevin Harley of GamesRadar gives the prequel 3 out of 5 stars, agreeing with the above opinion that Coriolanus Snow’s fill-in-the-blanks backstory isn’t as engaging as the plot’s other main strand, especially because we already know what happens to Snow. Harley says:
Nicely knotty themes of trust and mistrust snake through the tangled plot, writhing and biting. And the low-tech games themselves are grimly gripping, with pitchforks, poison, drones, and deadly reptiles all cruelly deployed. And songs? Enter Zegler, making terrific work of Lucy Gray's survivor’s instincts and performative aptitude. Whether you crave those old tunes or not, she sure commits to ’em, showing how the melodies sidle under Snow’s skin and haunt him. While Blyth is subtle and sure as Coryo, pre-echoing Donald Sutherland without forcing the point, it’s Zegler who emerges victorious.
Petrana Radulovic of Polygon, however, seems to disagree. The critic praises Tom Blyth as young Snow and says this movie overall is exactly what the YA dystopia genre needs. It reminds us of how brilliant The Hunger Games series is and makes us question why we like the genre in the first place. Radulovic continues:
Blyth does an admirable job of walking the line between a sympathetic antihero and a cold-hearted villain. He’s a charming liar and an expert manipulator, to the point where fans just might want to root for him — before he shows his true colors, his selfish and Machiavellian nature. While Zegler plays the role of charismatic songstress well, she doesn’t sell Lucy Gray’s cunning as much as Blyth sells Snow’s. The supporting cast also brings their A-game, particularly Viola Davis as the cruel Head Gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul.
David Ehrlich of IndieWire gives The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes a B+, writing that no protagonist during the YA boom years was ever as watchable as Tom Blyth, but still it’s Rachel Zegler who makes the movie sing. This installment is by far the best of the franchise, Ehrich says, continuing:
Significantly more intimate and grounded than the previous Hunger Games movies (despite being longer than any of them and responsible for seeding all of their lore), The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is the rare prequel that manages to stand on its own two feet and still feel taller than the other stories it’s ultimately meant to support. Screenwriters Michael Arndt and Michael Lesslie expect audiences to know that young Coriolanus grows up to become Donald Sutherland, but it’s hardly a requirement.
Emma Stefansky of IGN rates the movie a “Good” 7 out of 10, saying The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes rushes through a rich story that needs more time for its characters’ conflicts and manipulations to feel earned. The critic writes:
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes sees director Francis Lawrence return to the YA dystopia in which kids are forced to hunt and kill each other for the entertainment of a privileged ruling class. It works as a faithful adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ prequel novel, yet falls flat when it comes to depicting the maze of interpersonal manipulation and emotions that make up its main characters’ ultimately doomed relationship. Actors Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler are brilliant additions to the franchise with equally magnetic takes on their very different characters, but aren’t given enough time to fully flesh them out.
While many critics are able to point to flaws in the movie, it sounds like overall they enjoyed climbing back into the dystopian world created by Suzanne Collins, particularly due to the performances of Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler.
If you want to check out The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes for yourself, you can do so starting Friday, November 17, and be sure to check out our 2023 movie calendar to see what other films are hitting the big screen through the end of the year.