Lionsgate's The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is here, but does it live up to the expectations set by its predecessors? Yes—it might even challenge them as being the best in the franchise so far.
Director Francis Lawrence returns to the world he helped bring to life in the first place, and the filmmaker doesn't miss a beat. The world of Panem is as broken, cruel, and beautiful as ever before.
It’s no exaggeration to say that The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is the most accurate book-to-movie adaptation I’ve ever seen—though, that’s not to say there aren’t some changes here or there.
But, in this case, nearly every change does nothing but enhance the experience.
Many of them serve to intelligently condense the narrative, trimming some moments and reordering others. None of these changes feel like a disservice to the original work at any point.
Especially when it comes to how the film handles the story’s unique third act, the movie arguably does it all better.
However, the script is only one part of the larger equation. Another is the film’s phenomenal cast. Needless to say, there isn’t a weak link in sight.
Tom Blyth leads the pack as Coriolanus Snow, who hasn’t yet become the sinister President everyone knows from The Hunger Games. Instead, this younger version of the character hasn't fallen into that sinister territory, though it remains the destination.
The Snow met here is still young, wildly ambitious, and not cemented in his questionable ways just yet. That wiggle room allows for audiences to still be invested in the character despite the evil he’ll one day partake in.
Then there’s Rachel Zeglar’s Lucy Gray, whose presence commands attention anytime she graces the screen. For those who worried the character was going to be nothing more than a Katniss Everdeen carbon copy, rest assured that’s not the case.
Part of what makes her addition to the world so unique is how she’s a traveling musician whose Covey is family. Her story provides a unique perspective on life outside the capital, successfully avoiding similarities to the exact world Katniss grew up in.
The Lucy Gray brought to life on screen is an exceedingly better version of the character than the one portrayed in the book. This Lucy comes across as smarter, more aware, and extremely competent—and not just blinded by a fleeting romance that may or may not be genuine.
As the cherry on top, she’s also an incredible singer, so her soothing voice is a pleasure to hear, which often provides a brief respite from the incredibly dark world they live in.
Josh Andrés Rivera’s Sejanus Plinth does a fantastic job keeping the ethical dilemma of The Hunger Games in the foreground, Viola Davis’ Dr. Volumnia Gaul is just the right amount of crazy for The Capital’s Game Master, and Peter Dinklage gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as the mysteriously haunted Dean Casca Highbottom.
It’s worth also noting that Jason Schwartzman is genuinely hilarious as Lucky Flickerman, The Capital’s host for The Hungers Games—the actor nails every line.
All of those strong performances fit perfectly within the beautifully crafted world of Panem, which somehow feels more realized than ever before.
Most of the film takes place in the cold, concrete metropolis of The Capital, which is still recovering from the war with The Districts. With the movie following what is only the tenth annual Hunger Games, the festivities themselves are far different than what fans are used to—the competition is less complex and it all feels more savage and down to Earth.
While the proceedings may not be as bombastic as they’ll be in future games, the movie does a great job exploring how and why The Hunger Games evolved as they did—and why they ever started in the first place.
At one point, the story does see itself unfolding in District 12, which has all the personality it had before. There’s something so characteristic about the rundown, rustic, and live-in mining town; it all feels like a living, breaking, and struggling place.
If there was anything I wanted more from the story, and the franchise as a whole, it would be to see more of the many districts. For the most part, the story in Songbirds is relegated to both The Capital and District 12–much like the original series.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a resounding success that does a phenomenal job of bringing the book to life and giving fans another stellar entry in the franchise. Don’t expect it to be a breezy watch, though—the topics and ethical conundrums explored are heavy, and it’ll definitely have audiences thinking long after its credits roll.
While there are currently no additional books written in Suzanne Collins’ award-winning series, it's hard to imagine this will be the last audiences see within the world of Panem—especially on the big screen. While Snow’s story may be told, the world as a whole is simply begging for further exploration.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes hits theaters on November 17.