The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes Film Review


Hunger Games fans, rejoice! The screen adaptation of The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, a prequel to Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series, hit theaters on November 17th, 2023. The highly anticipated film depicts the 10th annual Hunger Games and the beginning of President Coriolanus Snow’s rise to power. If you attended an opening week showing like I did, you know that moviegoers left the theater shook to their core. Read on for an unpacking of the events of the film: the good, the bad, and the downright evil. 

A word of warning: this review will contain spoilers for the novel as well as the film adaptation. 

I wanted to begin this blog by thanking the universe for giving us Tom Blyth, who plays the lead role of young Coriolanus Snow. His face card REFUSES to decline. I was so impressed with the way he brought the character to life. Making one of the most infamous characters in The Hunger Games handsome forced the audience to constantly remind themselves not to be persuaded by his charms and blonde curls. I must also give my props to the hair and makeup department, who seamlessly delivered Coriolanus’s transition from fluffy, curly hair to bleach blonde buzzcut to Draco Malfoy’s dream hair. I thought the casting choice gave insight into the plausibility of Snow’s popularity, as his charisma and attractiveness mask his deeply disturbing political views and values. One of my biggest fears going into the film was that moviegoers would miss Snow’s twisted internal dialogue, but Tom does an excellent job revealing Coriolanus’s ulterior motivations through subtle expressions. Though Coriolanus plays a bigger role in the manipulation of the other tributes in the film than he does in the book, I felt like the change was worth it simply for Blyth’s delivery of “I’m just sending water!”

Rachel Zegler’s performance as Lucy Gray Baird is nothing short of outstanding. My only grievance with her casting is that she does not look young enough to be a teenage tribute in the Hunger Games. Aside from that small qualm, I could not think of anyone better suited for this role. Each time I listen to the movie soundtrack, I gain a deeper appreciation of her vocal talents and the effort she put into giving Lucy Gray a unique and haunting sound. From “Nothing You Can Take from Me” to “The Ballad of Lucy Gray Baird” to “Pure as the Driven Snow,” each song is easy to listen to again and again. I loved that the lyrics from the books were transferred directly into the film, which isn’t always the case in book adaptations (looking at you, Daisy Jones & The Six). Though the songs were amazing, it was easy to miss important lyrics in the film because other events were occurring during the singing. The symbolic value of “Lucy Gray,” for instance, is significantly lessened in the movie adaptation. I also found it ironic that the Capitol’s erasure of Lucy Gray is missing from the movie. While it is difficult to fit every detail from the book into the movie, I wished the resolution included the eradication of the evidence of the victor of the 10th Hunger Games. 

I was also incredibly impressed with the cast members who play the adult characters. Viola Davis breathes life into the wicked Dr. Volumnia Gaul, enrapturing the audience every time she appears. I also appreciated Peter Dinklage’s understated portrayal of Dean Casca Highbottom. Highbottom’s motivations for disliking Snow are evident earlier in the film than they are in the book, but I thought the tension between the characters was even more palpable on screen. With actors as seasoned and celebrated as Davis and Dinklage, it is no surprise that their performances were highlights of the film. 

Jason Schwartzman gets the opportunity to flex his comedic chops as Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman, offering rare flashes of levity in an otherwise intense film. While he is no Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), that is intentional! I love that audience members see the development of the Hunger Games as a spectacle through the growth in the professionalism of the hosts. The scene where Lucky pushes back his dinner reservation for “two adults and a highchair was a fun Easter egg implying that Caesar is Lucky’s direct descendant.

Additionally, I thoroughly enjoyed Hunter Shafer in the role of Tigris. She mastered the emotionality of the character from her affectionate references to Snow as “Coryo” to her final line: “You look just like your father, Coriolanus.” My only complaint was that she should have had more screen time!

While many of the individual tributes also did not get as much screen time as I hoped, there were certainly a few scene-stealers. Wovey, the District 8 tribute played by Sofia Sanchez, carved out a special place in my heart through the film adaptation. Her death hit me hard, perhaps equally as hard as the death of District 11 tribute Reaper (Dimitri Abold). Reaper’s actions were greatly reduced in the film, but the impact stayed the same. I appreciated his stoicism and the honorability of his death. Irene Böhm, playing District 7’s Lamina, also made the most of a slightly reduced role. Her mercy killing of Marcus, the District 2 tribute who attempted to flee the Games, was one of the most upsetting and heartbreaking moments of the entire film. District 4 tribute Coral (Mackenzie Lansing) was much more prominent and villainous in the movie than I remembered her being in the book, causing the audience to forget that the real antagonist was the Capitol, not the tributes themselves. Again, it was all too easy to fall into the mindset of the viewers in the Capitol.

Speaking of the Capitol citizens, the roles of many of Coriolanus’s peers were significantly cut down to maintain the spotlight on Snow (just as he would want it). I was devastated by the removal of many of the scenes involving Clemensia (Ashley Liao). I can’t believe they never showed her again after the initial snakebite! Festus (Max Raphael) also did not have many moments in the spotlight, which disappointed me since he played off Sejanus and Coriolanus in entertaining ways in the book. On the other hand, I was enraptured by Zoe Renee’s performance as Lysistrata Vickers. I couldn’t take my eyes off her every time she was on screen! 

Now onto everyone’s favorite District boy turned Capitol citizen, Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera). I thought the movie did a great job depicting Sejanus through the eyes of Coriolanus. Sejanus always seems naïve and foolish, ineffectively trying to give everything to a cause he does not fully understand. Furthermore, Snow’s need for all relationships to be transactional is highlighted through his interactions with Sejanus. Friendship never comes before ambition. 

The playing of Snow’s jabberjay recording of Sejanus just before Sejanus’ hanging is a truly haunting addition to the movie. Sejanus knowing about the betrayal as he meets his death adds another level of horror to the scene. The emotional intensity of every hanging scene in the movie is magnified by the jabberjays, and the devastating cries of “Ma! Ma! Ma!” reverberated in my brain throughout the rest of the film. Speaking of Ma, I could not believe she had such a small role in this movie. We barely caught glimpses of either of the Plinth parents, not even at the conclusion of the film. While I was impressed with the concluding scenes of the film and their profound symbolism, I wished moviegoers would have seen the interactions between Coriolanus and the Plinths following Sejanus’s death. Snow practically replacing Sejanus and inheriting his wealth is one of the most diabolical parts of the book, so the film really missed a crucial element of the resolution.

Despite my slight disappointment with some of the omissions, this film is well worth seeing and obsessing over. The Hunger Games is back in a major way! Be sure to catch this film on the big screen, especially if you’ve read the book. Like the rest of the Hunger Games films, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a fantastic adaptation of some of the best young adult literature on the market. Plus, you get to find out how Snow lands on top. 

Ashley Amacher, Pine Reads Review Assistant Director & Lead Editor