What exactly are the differences between the original Hunger Games movies and the new installment, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes?
The original film series, which started with 2011’s The Hunger Games (preceded by the original book in 2008), followed Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen as she fought her way through the brutal titular competition.
Throughout the trilogy (or four entries counting the movies), she eventually became posed to take down the entire corrupt and rotten establishment ruling over Panem.
This most recent installment, starring Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler, takes the story back to the 10th annual Hunger Games. Not only that, but it follows Katniss’ greatest enemy: Coriolanus Snow.
Hunger Games Vs. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
In an exclusive interview with The Direct's Russ Milheim, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes Director of Photography Jo Willems discussed how the new entry in the franchise differs from the original movies—in which he worked on three of them, Catching Fire and onwards.
Willems shared that he thinks the “biggest difference” is how both his and Director Francis Lawrence’s “visual style has changed:”
“I think the biggest difference, though, was visually, we both myself and Francis [Lawrence], we're both kind of a little bit older, we've moved on a little bit where, you know, the last movie, I think, came out 2015. It's now eight years later, and our visual style has changed a little bit, I feel. We ended up shooting large-format cameras. We went into digital; we went away from anamorphic. We kind of went into a much more wider lens pallets.”
They wanted the movie to feel “more and more intimate,” which led to some moments where the camera is “two [or] three inches away from Tom [Blyth’s] face:”
“I mean, you can see it in a movie, how more and more intimate we try and get in some of those scenes where--I mean, there's moments where the cameras two, three inches away from Tom [Blyth's] face, and I think that was probably, visually, the biggest sort of change. Obviously, it's set in the past, but even the other movies had sort of a retro-future. You know, science fiction feel about it. But I think sort of our storytelling, lens-wise, I think that's the biggest change or the biggest difference.”
Willems worked on four Hunger Games films now, but which was the hardest one to pull off?
The DP pointed to 2013’s Catching Fire, noting how the pressure coming into that second movie was at an all-time high:
“I mean, for me, personally, probably, and even though I am incredibly happy with that movie, I mean, I think, you know, 'Catching Fire' was for me because at that point in my career to come into something that was that large scale, that brings a little bit more pressure on a day-to-day basis. Also, it was shot on film at the time. So you know, that also brings a little bit more pressure on stress within terms of processing, in terms of exposures, and in terms of all of that.”
While Songbirds and Snakes “was definitely complex to figure out the logistics,” Catching Fire still came out on top in terms of which was more difficult to get to the finish line:
“So now, I'm a bit older, I have a bit more experience, even though this movie, there were complicated things with it. The arena was definitely complex to figure out the logistics and how am I going to make it dramatic, but also, here I am in this incredibly large space in the middle of Poland. How am I going to make this work? But in terms of sort of the pressure, definitely 'Catching Fire' is probably the hardest of the four movies.”
Part of what makes The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes so interesting is how it takes place 64 years before audiences ever meet Katniss Everdeen. The Hunger Games themselves are also far less developed.
“... This game is much more grounded in reality. Everything is real--real weapons, there's no fantasy stuff. There's no arena that sits--that Katniss can shoot the walls away, or there is no dogs that are running around. There's no force fields or none of that stuff. So it's very much a more gladiator-style fight sequence, which I mean to me when I stepped into that arena when we were scouting it, it felt like a 1960s kind of Olympic Games arena, and I wanted it to kind of have like a bit of a grim, gritty feel.”
Another difference is that most of the action in the games takes place “in one arena:”
“We shot particularly the opening of the games, we shot it on a very wide lens, and we followed her perspective very much from the start. So, I think also because the games play in one arena--all the other games are like, you know, it was the jungle, they would travel around for days in this thing. Well, this was really just in one spot.”
Willem added, he “didn’t want [the arena] to be a friendly environment by any means:”
“But I still needed it to have because, you know, there's day in there, there's night in there. I still wanted it to be dramatic, but gritty, to me, was definitely one of the most important things. All that dust in there, and I didn't want [the arena] to be a friendly environment by any means. And it isn't.”
While the original series followed Katniss, a clear hero and rebel against a corrupt and cruel system, Songbirds and Snakes follows Coriolanus Snow—who grows to be one of the most evil men in all of Panem.
The DP shared that it was “important to have empathy for [Snow’s] situation” despite who he becomes:
“I mean, obviously, it needed to feel kind of--I think it's very difficult to make a movie about the villain of the later movies and have empathy for that character. But that was kind of important, to have empathy for his situation. And I think it's set up really well at the start of the movie where you feel for, you know, his struggle and his situation in life.”
“I don’t think we portrayed him as being this dark, twisted person from the get-go,” Willems admitted, adding how he “didn’t want to push the evil element:”
“And I think, you know, he obviously brings a certain amount of trauma into the rest of the movie from his childhood. But he is [also] charming, and I don't think we portrayed him as being this dark, twisted person from the get-go... He is presented as this young, attractive man in the movie as well... I think, with lighting... I didn't want to push the evil element of it.”
“This person is looking for power,” explained the Hunger Games creative, and “he wants to be like his father:”
“You can also see, for example, the way we sort of shot him from a lot of lower angles, and a lot of, sort of like, this person is kind of looking for power and... he wants to be like his father because his father died when he was very young. And I think he is pushed by his family to kind of keep them into this lifestyle.”
On the other hand, Katniss “comes from the complete opposite side,” and he believes is “a more grounded person:”
“And I mean, Katniss, obviously, she comes from the complete opposite side. She is the rebellious kind. He might be a little bit rebellious in his own environment because he sort of fights against his teachers a little bit. But I think Katniss was definitely sort of a more grounded person, a very real person, while he definitely comes from a privileged environment.”
The Difference of Following Snow Vs. Katniss
It’s clear that despite being in the same franchise, this new entry in The Hunger Games series will be far different than the previous ones.
As Jo Willems stated, a lot of that seems to stem from who the story follows. Instead of a rebellious, oppressed soul like Katniss, views follow Coriolanus Snow, whose heart is with The Capital—even if he does contend with some fleeting ethical dilemmas.
Though, no doubt, for anyone who enjoyed the original films, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes will be equally enjoyable.
Then there’s the fact that the Hunger Games themselves are still evolving in this world. Audiences are learning just how the deadly competition evolves into the complex activity it becomes—and how things like mentors or sponsor gifts ever came to be in the first place.
Fans can look to enjoy more of Panem when The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes hits theaters on November 17.