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Everything "The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes" Got Right — And Wrong, by Abby Adamson

WARNING: Major spoilers ahead for "The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes" movie and book.

If you’ve looked around recently, pop culture feels like 2014 all over again. The Five Nights at Freddy’s franchise is booming, Taylor Swift is dominating the music charts, Dan and Phil are posting regularly on YouTube, and edits of Josh Hutcherson are (rightfully) taking up my entire feed online. The final touch to all of this, of course, is the success of the new Hunger Games prequel movie, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

The book, written by the Hunger Games mastermind Suzanne Collins, was released in 2020, and the movie adaptation hit theaters in mid-November of this year. To call it a box office hit would be an understatement: In its opening weekend alone, the film grossed over $100 million internationally, surpassing the budget. Fans have taken to social media to discuss every aspect of the prequel as many express their admiration for the movie, the actors, the franchise as a whole and their attraction to Tom Blyth, who plays a young President Snow.

The story follows Snow, at this point known as Coriolanus, as a young Capitol student mentoring a District 12 tribute, Lucy Gray Baird, during the 10th annual Hunger Games. His end-goal in mentoring is to win a scholarship for himself, the Plinth Prize, to pay for tuition at the prestigious University. This leads him to make drastic decisions to attain his goals. The plot takes the viewer through Snow’s slow descent into corruption and greed as he becomes the heartless tyrant we see in the original Hunger Games stories.

Many (including me) have hailed Ballad for its attention to detail and closeness to the plot of the book, down to exact quotes, while others (also including me) have expressed concern toward plot changes that hold impact on the narrative as a whole.

I want to provide a disclaimer here: I really, truly enjoyed the movie. It wasn’t perfect by any means, and I found myself disappointed at some of the changes that took away from the movie experience; however, the nostalgia the movie creates for the original, perfectly executed Hunger Games is strong, and the film captivated me from beginning to end.

One of my biggest compliments to the prequel is the absolutely stellar casting. Every actor brought something unique to their role, making their character that much more believable, and the chemistry between each cast member offered a cohesive story that I could fully immerse myself in.

Aside from the two main leads, Tom Blyth (who plays Coriolanus) and Rachel Zegler (who plays Lucy Gray), some of my favorite casting decisions were Hunter Schafer as Coriolanus’ cousin, Tigris, and Viola Davis as the evil Dr. Gaul. Schafer brings a softness and gentle side to Tigris’ demeanor that reads well throughout the book, and it’s even more apparent in the movie. Davis’ stone-faced approach to Gaul’s avant-garde punishments and murder makes my skin crawl.

Some of the cast chemistry, though, strays from the original plot in a way that jarred me. If you’ve been on Twitter over the past few weeks, you may have seen memes about the relationship between Coriolanus and his once-district friend Sejanus, suggesting that the two were romantically involved. Of course, the memes are hilarious — I admire the creativity and craft put into photos of Coriolanus with pride flags captioned “our bi king” — but this idea couldn’t be farther from the original storyline.

Throughout the book, Coriolanus repeatedly remarks how much he hates Sejanus through his inner monologue (an aspect that I wish were possible in the film). He views Sejanus as lower class, if not animalistic, because he comes from the districts rather than the Capitol. Any acts of kindness that the audience sees between Coriolanus and Sejanus serve as a way for Coriolanus to get ahead. For example, he saves Sejanus’ life in the arena in an attempt to get money out of his rich father, and in the third part of the book, he calls Sejanus his “brother” in order to get information about his rebel involvement.

Though Sejanus’ loyalty to Coriolanus translates well from book to movie, even that is exaggerated in the film. At one point, Coriolanus snoops through Sejanus’ box of personal belongings and finds a photo of the two together at the Academy, and Coriolanus realizes how much Sejanus truly cares about him. This scene happens in the book as well, but it plays out completely differently.

In the book, when Coriolanus rifles through Sejanus’ things, he finds photos of loved ones, but not a single picture is from the Capitol. The box only holds pictures of Sejanus’ district life and the friends and family he had there. The disconnect between Sejanus and Coriolanus — where Coriolanus embraces Capitol life and Sejanus still reminisces on his past — stands out as a major sign of Sejanus’ true loyalties, and I found myself both surprised and confused by the change in plot for the movie.

While Coriolanus and Sejanus’ relationship seems contrived compared to the book, the same cannot be said for the relationship between Coriolanus and Lucy Gray. As I sat in the theater, my jaw dropped to the floor at the immediate connection and chemistry between the two characters. For the most part, the movie stays true to their romantic arc, only changing small details of their interactions to make Coriolanus’ intentions clearer for the viewer.

Blyth and Zegler deliver an astounding performance that emphasizes the horrific circumstances the two are thrown in. One is district, the other Capitol. One is fighting for her life against other teenagers while the other has to watch. One is carefree, and the other a staunch rule-follower. Their love is doomed from the very beginning; yet as a viewer, we can’t help but root for them anyway.

My favorite aspect of Lucy Gray’s character is her ability to haunt Coriolanus for the rest of her life and beyond. Her music, one of the most important aspects of her story, lives on in a way that we, as veterans of the Hunger Games fandom, may recognize from the original movies. Songs like “Hanging Tree” and “Deep in The Meadow” (which didn’t make it into the movie… release the director’s cut) originate from Lucy Gray and her band, the Covey.

We can only imagine the extent of President Snow’s horror when Katniss echoes those same words 65 years later in the arena. Lucy Gray’s lasting effect reaches deeper into Coriolanus’ life than the movie truly depicts, and it’s a point that I wish had been emphasized further for the Ballad film.

In one of the final scenes of the movie, Coriolanus can be seen shooting at mockingjays. We get the sense throughout the story that Coriolanus dislikes the mockingjays, but the true extent of his hatred for them and the reasoning behind it are not explored nearly as thoroughly as they could have been.

The prequel explains that mockingjays were a product of breeding between jabberjays, a Capitol tool for spying on rebels, and mockingbirds, which were wild birds found in the districts. When the two bred together, they created mockingjays, and Coriolanus despises their wild, uncontrolled nature. In his own words, the birds are “unnatural,” and in his time as a Peacekeeper, he even suggests using the mockingjays surrounding the District 12 hanging tree as target practice.

Lucy Gray loves the mockingjays, often singing to them and listening to their mimicry. For Coriolanus, then, the mockingjays serve as another reminder of Lucy Gray after she leaves him stranded in District 12. We get to see the lasting impact of the mockingjay in the original trilogy as it becomes the symbol of the revolution; therefore, it would’ve added to the strength of the prequel to see the context for how much Coriolanus truly hated the mockingjays from his first interaction with them.

A final change to discuss from the book to the movie is the action in the games themselves. In the movie, the games still manage to provide some entertainment even though they’re shaky compared to the grandeur we know from the 75th Hunger Games. Coral, a District 10 tribute, gathers several other tributes to hunt Lucy Gray, who remains defenseless throughout the entirety of the games. Later, in the snake scene, Lucy Gray finally outlasts the rest of the tributes and wins. In the book, though, this plays out a bit differently.

Coral, for example, doesn’t hunt Lucy Gray at all in the book, since Lucy Gray hides in the tunnels beneath the arena for a large portion of the games. Coral does team up with other tributes, but the alliance quickly falls apart as they begin to kill each other instead. In the book’s snake scene, multiple tributes manage to survive, and Lucy Gray kills the final few herself with poisoned water and a snake she had slipped in her pocket (a nod to her reaping at the beginning of the book).

It makes sense, of course, for changes in detail to be made, and these are changes I don’t necessarily mind — the irony of these changes, though, is not lost on me. A major point of the prequel was that the games needed to become more of a spectacle, more entertaining for the audience to gain viewership. Some of the most important advancements in the basic aspects of the games developed during the 10th Hunger Games to combat the low amount of viewers. It’s ironic, then, that the movie altered the action of the games to be more entertaining for our audience.

As a whole, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is an extremely compelling prequel and addition to the Hunger Games franchise. The casting, scenery, costume design, use of reference to the original trilogy, and overall closeness to the book’s plot blend together to create a movie that doesn’t weaken or cheapen the message of the primary story. Instead, the original Hunger Games is bolstered and strengthened by the prequel’s added details about the world of Panem.

So, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, dust off your old Hunger Games shirt, Dutch braid your hair and head to the nearest theater to experience the masterpiece that is The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes — and prepare to leave with a newfound crush on Tom Blyth’s Snow.

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