Twelve years after the release of The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins has finally returned to the world of Panem in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a prequel novel set 64 years before Katniss entered the arena and took on the Capitol. Back in February, I wrote a blog about the announcement of the new installment’s main character— a teenage President Snow —covering widespread backlash from fans. As the tyrannical leader of Panem and Big Bad of the original trilogy, Snow seemed a strange choice to many fans.
Throughout the first three novels, he perpetuated the ritual slaughter of children, exploited the twelve impoverished districts, and preserved the extreme wealth of the Capitol. With this horrendous track record in mind, Snow seemed unworthy of helming his own story, and of receiving any potential redemption— or at the very least, mild sympathy—from readers. After all, the main purpose of a villain origin story is, arguably, to show how said character becomes evil. The argument being that literary figures like President Snow are not simply “born bad” but made into monsters. In doing so, most of these backstories (hope to) elicit some form of empathy for otherwise sinister characters; characters who “could’ve been the hero” in different circumstances. Their villainy is usually a product of some sort of major trauma or wrongdoing that they experienced. As such, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes acts as Snow’s origin story, tracking his dark descent into corruption and gradual rise to power.
So, how does President Snow become the sadistic dictator we love to hate? The prequel takes place during the Dark Days of Panem—a rebuilding period after the first war with the districts. While the Capitol has defeated the rebel forces and regained its authoritarian control, eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow is just scraping by. His family lost everything during the war, except their respected lineage. Orphaned, Snow now lives with his ailing grandmother and aspiring stylist cousin, Tigris (yes, that Tigris), in a dilapidated apartment. In a last-ditch effort to reclaim his family’s status and riches, Coriolanus becomes a mentor in the 10th annual Hunger Games, hoping to advise the winning tribute. In a curious turn-of-events, he’s assigned the female tribute from district twelve— Lucy Gray Baird, an eccentric singer with charm to spare. No surprise, the two fall for each other, forcing Snow to choose between love and power in a very dramatic ultimatum.
Although, while Katniss is loosely connected to Lucy Gray— both being rebellious young women from district twelve who love to sing—it’s actually young Coriolanus whom I found to be the most interesting comparison to the future mockingjay. In volunteering to take her sister’s place in the Games, thereby accepting a probable death sentence, Katniss prioritizes her love for Prim over self-preservation —a recurring theme throughout the original trilogy. In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, however, Snow continually forsakes human connection in favor of his pursuit for power. Even his seemingly genuine attachment to Lucy Gray is tainted by ego, as Snow constantly maneuvers every situation to his own advantage. He claims she “matters” to him, but winning the games is not only about guaranteeing her survival; it’s also about securing a huge step forward in young Snow’s grab for power. As such, Coriolanus Snow serves as an interesting foil to Katniss Everdeen. If Katniss is a mockingjay taking flight for freedom, Coriolanus Snow is a venomous serpent slithering his way to absolute authority.
Moreover, the prequel not only differs from the original trilogy in terms of the moral fabric of its protagonist. Most notably, the Hunger Games of Snow’s adolescence are not the same as the ones from Katniss’s time. While Katniss is transported to the Capitol in a sleek train with a velvet interior, these tributes are thrown into a decrepit train car meant for livestock. Once they arrive in the Capitol, they’re locked in empty animal cages at the local zoo. Instead of decadent feasts and personal stylists, the tributes rely on their mentors to bring them food, nibbling on the occasional scrap from voyeuristic Capitol citizens in the meantime. The obvious dehumanization of the tributes, at times, seems over-emphasized with little thematic payback. While equally horrifying, the explicit animalization of the tributes does not provide the same nuanced social commentary of the original trilogy—especially when compared to the twisted ‘star-treatment’ Katniss receives before participating in televised murder for the entertainment of the Capitol and oppression of the districts. (Though, the killing scenes during the Games are just as gory and unnerving.)
Although, narratively, the differences between Katniss’s version of the Games and young Snow’s are important. During the events of the prequel, Coriolanus is part of a task force to help make the Games “more engaging”, as even Capitol citizens avoid watching them due to their “sickening” appeal. The evolution from animal cages to glitzy interviews with Cesar Flickerman highlights how the Hunger Games developed into the sadistic (yet widely viewed) entertainment of Katniss’s time. In making the Games like a ‘game show’ and treating the tributes as honored guests, they transformed this revolting tradition into a must-see sensation. Thus, the prequel entwines both the origin story of President Snow and that of the Games themselves. Snow himself even suggests allowing Capitol citizens to “bet” on their favorite tributes and send food into the arena—basically inventing the future system of Capitol sponsorship seen in the original trilogy.
Overall, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is not The Hunger Games, and Coriolanus Snow is no Katniss Everdeen. While the Games themselves are still a significant aspect of the prequel, readers remain (for the most part) outside the arena alongside Snow, replacing the beat-by-beat, high-octane action of the first novel with a slow-burning scheme for control—a chess game instead of a bloody free-for-all. Die-hard fans can enjoy Easter eggs from the original trilogy— like discovering the origin of “The Hanging Tree” song Katniss sings in Mockingjay—while looking back on the formation of one of young adult literature’s most fearsome villains.
PRR Writer, Hannah Miller
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