The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a 2023 American dystopian action film directed by Francis Lawrence from a screenplay by Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt. Based on the 2020 novel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins, it serves as a prequel to The Hunger Games (2012), and is the fifth installment in The Hunger Games film series. The film stars Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Peter Dinklage, Jason Schwartzman, Hunter Schafer, Josh Andrés Rivera, and Viola Davis. Set 64 years before the events of the first film, its plot follows the events that lead a young Coriolanus Snow on the path to becoming the tyrannical leader of Panem, including his relationship with the Hunger Games District 12 tribute Lucy Gray Baird during the 10th Hunger Games.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes held its world premiere in Berlin, Germany on November 5, 2023, and was released in the United States on November 17, 2023, by Lionsgate Films. The film has grossed $199.4 million worldwide and received mixed reviews from critics.
In Panem, noble Snow family patriarch General Crassus Snow dies during the First Rebellion between the Capitol and the Districts. Thirteen years later, Crassus’ eighteen-year-old son Coriolanus is one of twenty-four Academy students selected to mentor a tribute in the 10th Annual Hunger Games. Coriolanus determines to restore his family’s prosperity by earning the Plinth Prize scholarship. Games creator and Academy dean, Casca Highbottom, advises mentors to focus on entertaining viewers rather than tributes winning the Games.
Coriolanus is assigned to mentor District 12 female tribute Lucy Gray Baird. During the reaping ceremony, she charms Capitol viewers by singing and slipping a snake into Mayor Lipp’s cruel daughter Mayfair’s dress. While fellow mentor Arachne Crane taunts her tribute, who then kills her, Coriolanus earns Lucy Gray’s trust, riding with her to the Capitol Zoo, and helps her win Capitol citizens’ sympathy, much to Highbottom’s displeasure, as he paired Coriolanus with a District 12 tribute so he would fail.
Coriolanus proposes a sponsorship scheme to Head Gamemaker, Dr. Volumnia Gaul, where Capitol viewers donate supplies to tributes via their mentors during the Games. Coriolanus’ classmate, Clemensia Dovecote, takes the credit. Gaul places the proposal document into a tank of genetically modified snakes that do not attack familiar scents. Gaul has Clemensia retrieve it. Not recognizing Clemensia’s scent, the snakes critically wound her – confirming it was Coriolanus’ proposal.
During an arena tour, a rebel bomb explodes, killing several mentors, including the President’s son, Felix Ravinstill, and tributes. When Lucy Gray saves Coriolanus from falling debris, he gifts her with rat poison to use as a weapon.
The games begin with several tributes dying in the initial bloodbath. Lucy Gray escapes through an explosion-caused hole, hiding in a service tunnel. Coriolanus’ wealthy friend and fellow mentor, Sejanus Plinth, resenting the Games’ cruelty, sneaks into the arena and mourns next to his fallen tribute, a former District 2 classmate. Gaul persuades Coriolanus to retrieve Sejanus from the arena. When tributes attack them, Coriolanus kills one.
To avenge Felix’s death, Gaul releases snakes into the arena, killing every tribute but Lucy Gray. Coriolanus had secretly put a handkerchief bearing her scent into the snake tank. Gaul refuses to declare her the victor until Capitol viewers pressure Gaul. After the victory celebration, Highbottom confronts Coriolanus with the handkerchief and poison and sentences him to serve twenty years as a Peacekeeper for cheating. Sejanus is similarly punished for entering the arena. Coriolanus bribes an officer to transfer him to District 12, where he and Sejanus begin Peacekeeper training.
After a man is hanged, inspiring Lucy Gray’s “The Hanging Tree” song, Coriolanus and Sejanus visit the Hob bar where Lucy Gray performs with the Covey, a nomadic band. Coriolanus overhears Sejanus helping rebels planning to escape; he uses a jabberjay to record Sejanus’ voice and sends it to Gaul. Coriolanus finds Sejanus talking to rebel Spruce, Lucy Gray’s old boyfriend Billy Taupe, and his girlfriend Mayfair, leading to an altercation. Coriolanus shoots Mayfair and Spruce kills Billy. Sejanus and Spruce are subsequently hanged for treason while Lucy Gray and Coriolanus escape.
Heading north, Coriolanus finds Spruce’s weapons hidden in a lakeside cabin. Lucy Gray runs away after realizing Coriolanus betrayed Sejanus. As Coriolanus pursues her, a snake set as a trap bites him. Disoriented, he shoots his rifle blindly after hearing jabberjays mimicking Lucy Gray’s voice. Coriolanus is unsure if she was hit, leaving her fate unknown.
Coriolanus returns to the Capitol, where Gaul reveals she had him honorably discharged and enrolls him at the university. Sejanus’ parents, unaware he caused their son’s death, make him an heir, restoring the Snows’ wealth. Coriolanus visits Highbottom, who confesses the Games were never intended to be reality. It was merely his drunken idea Crassus had stolen, and he set Coriolanus up as revenge for the bloodshed he indirectly caused. Coriolanus kills Highbottom by slipping rat poison into his morphling stash. Gaul later trains Coriolanus as a Gamemaker, beginning his rise to power.
Tom Blyth as Coriolanus “Corio” Snow: A mentor for the upcoming 10th Hunger Games and future President of Panem.
Dexter Sol Ansell as young Coriolanus
Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird: The female tribute from District 12 who forms a connection with Coriolanus, and a member of the Covey, a travelling musician group.
Josh Andrés Rivera as Sejanus Plinth: A classmate and friend of Snow, and the mentor to a tribute from District 2. He is from District 2 but now lives in the Capitol.
Viola Davis as Dr. Volumnia Gaul: The head gamemaker of the 10th Hunger Games and the person who first implemented them.
Peter Dinklage as Casca Highbottom: Dean of the academy and intellectual author of the Hunger Games.
Jason Schwartzman as Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman: The first television host for the 10th Hunger Games and assumed ancestor to Caesar Flickerman, who would host later editions of the Games.
Hunter Schafer as Tigris Snow: Coriolanus’s older cousin and confidante, who advises him in everything. She would go on to become a stylist in the Games and an ally to Katniss Everdeen and the resistance against Panem.
Rosa Gotzler as young Tigris
Fionnula Flanagan as Grandma’am: Coriolanus and Tigris’s grandmother.
Burn Gorman as Commander Hoff: The leader of the Peacekeepers in District 12.
Ashley Liao as Clemensia Dovecote: A classmate and friend of Snow, and a mentor to a tribute from District 11.
Max Raphael as Festus Creed: A classmate of Snow, and mentor to a tribute from District 4.
Zoe Renee as Lysistrata Vickers: A classmate of Snow, and mentor of the other District 12 tribute, Jessup.
Aamer Husain as Felix Ravinstill: A classmate of Snow, and mentor to a tribute from District 11.
Lilly Cooper as Arachne Crane: A classmate of Snow, and a mentor to a tribute from District 10.
Nick Benson as Jessup: The male tribute from District 12 alongside Lucy Gray.
Sofia Sanchez as Wovey: The young female tribute from District 8.
Dakota Shapiro as Billy Taupe: Lucy Gray’s former love interest, and a former member of the Covey.
Isobel Jesper Jones as Mayfair Lipp: The daughter of District 12’s mayor, a rival of Lucy Gray, and Taupe’s new girlfriend.
George Somner as Spruce: A rebel citizen from District 12.
The tributes for the 10th Hunger Games who form an alliance, known as “the Pack”, include: Mackenzie Lansing as Coral, the female tribute from District 4 who leads the Pack; Cooper Dillon as Mizzen, the male tribute from District 4; Hiroki Berrecloth as Treech, the male tribute from District 7; and Kjell Brutscheidt as Tanner, the male tribute from District 10. Other members of Lucy Gray’s travelling musician group, the Covey, include: Vaughan Reilly as Maude Ivory, Honor Gillies as Barb Azure, Eike Onyambu as Tam Amber, and Konstantin Taffet as Clerk Carmine. Additionally, Michael Greco and Daniela Grubert appear as Strabo Plinth and Mrs. Plinth, Sejanus’ parents, while Carl Spencer and Scott Folan appear as Smiley and Beanpole, two peacekeepers sent by the Capitol to District 12.
The soundtrack for The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes contains the film’s version of songs such as “The Hanging Tree”, “Pure as the Driven Snow”, which were live performed by Zegler, and produced by Dave Cobb, which heavily drew from Appalachian-country folk music. The official soundtrack The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (Music From & Inspired By) would be released on November 17, by Geffen Records featuring tracks performed by Zegler, as well as songs performed by established Americana and folk artists, and was led by two singles: “The Hanging Tree (Lucy Gray’s version)” was released on October 18, 2023, and “Can’t Catch Me Now”, performed by Olivia Rodrigo, was released two days later on November 3.
In July 2022, composer James Newton Howard confirmed that he would return to score the film. Howard’s score would be released on November 17, by Sony Classical Records.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes had its European premiere in Berlin, Germany on November 5, 2023, its world premiere at the BFI IMAX in London on November 9, 2023, and was released on November 16, in Europe and November 17, 2023, by Lionsgate Films.
On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, 65% of 211 critics’ reviews are positive, with an average rating of 6.4/10. The website’s consensus reads: “An outstanding cast and exciting story help make The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes a worthy return to Panem in spite of a rushed and somewhat frustrating ending.” Metacritic, which uses a weighted average, assigned the film a score of 54 out of 100, based on 51 critics, indicating “mixed or average” reviews. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of “B+” on an A+ to F scale, the lowest of the franchise, while those polled by PostTrak gave it an 87% overall positive score, with 70% saying they would definitely recommend the film.
Zoe Guy of Vulture reported that “some critics view the 158-minute spectacle as an overwrought snoozefest, while others argue that Ballad is the most satisfying entry in the entire franchise”. NME’s Alex Berry meanwhile characterised the initial critical response as “largely negative”, noting that “the film has been criticised as lacking in the excitement and drama promised by the trailer, and not living up to the expectation following the first films”.
Writing for IndieWire, David Ehrlich named the film both the best young adult dystopian film and “by far” the strongest installment in The Hunger Games film series, describing it as “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”. RogerEbert.com’s Christy Lemire complimented the “subtlety of this supervillain origin story” and described Blyth’s performance as Coriolanus Snow as “a star-making performance”. Brian Truitt of USA Today praised it as “an enticing blend of dystopian action epic and musical drama that surpasses the previous films”. In a negative review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw wrote that “the interest, dramatic momentum and energy” of the franchise “have frankly expired”, concluding that “this movie finally ties itself into various knots to prefigure the later world of Katniss, but the time to end the Games came long ago”. Clarisse Loughrey of The Independent criticized the film for “[squandering] the anger of novelist Suzanne Collins’s source material” and “[diluting] its biggest villain”, further deriding Snow’s characterization as a “yassification of a future monster”.
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