Hollywood Gamemakers and Some Lovely Tunes: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes Comes to the Big Screen

Over ten years ago, I shared my thoughts  on the first Hunger Games  film, which was largely filmed just down the road from where I live and included some of my friends and students as extras. Despite the fact that the movie gave a nice tourism bump to my region and was a fun viewing experience since I had my English classes reading the novel, I am not particularly fond of it as an adaptation, and I saw the subsequent films as mixed bags that frequently failed to match my expectations compared to Suzanne Collins’s wonderful trilogy. Thus, when the film adaptation of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was announced, I was not particularly hopeful. The prequel to the original Hunger Games Trilogy is a brilliant novel, and I was not optimistic about what the Hollywood Gamemakers would do to it. I donned my T-shirt that says “The book was better,” and off I went to be underwhelmed, but overall, I was pleasantly surprised. Although there are certainly some aspects of the film I found lacking, there were others that hit some very nice notes, just like a song. Join me after the jump for some thoughts on sets, Snow, symbols, songs, and much more from The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Be warned, spoilers and venomous reptiles lie ahead.

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Official Casting News for ‘The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ Film Adaptation

Last month, we noted that pre-production had started for the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s brilliant novel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. A couple of weeks ago, the announcement was made regarding the casting of the actor set to play young Coriolanus Snow. Yesterday, the actress playing Lucy Gray Baird was confirmed. As usual, the Hollywood people have made decisions that book people might find perplexing, but let’s take a look at these two actors, Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler, to see how well they might fit into this complex and riveting story of Panem’s tenth Hunger Games.

Hollywood Business as Usual

First of all, I do not always gripe about casting in film adaptations of books. I often love the casting of films adapted from books I treasure. I am quite happy with most of the original Lord of the Rings cast, for example. I also understand that actors do not have to look exactly like their characters’ textual descriptions in order to be good fits. Daniel Radcliffe’s eye color, of course, does not match Harry’s, but he was a generally acceptable choice to for the role. Sometimes, I even get the casting I want. When I was reading The Martian, I remember thinking, “You know who they should get to play Martinez? Michael Pena!” Lo and behold, Pena is actually cast in that role in the film and is predictably perfect. Alan Rickman was the Snape in my head (and the heads of many other readers) even before he was cast in the first Harry Potter film. However, most of the time, the Hollywood mindset is one of dollar signs rather than one of literary artistry, resulting in predictable decisions.

Ideally, I would have liked to see the two leads in this film played by complete unknowns. I especially hoped that for the character of Lucy Gray Baird, as I know there is some young woman playing at a music venue or heritage festival this weekend, in eastern Kentucky or western North Carolina, who would suit that role to a T, but she doesn’t have a big Hollywood agent or an impressive resume. She just has a gorgeous voice and the right look. Those are clearly not enough for the Hollywood machine, which already gave us “too-tall-too-mature-too-beautiful” Jennifer Lawrence in the original films. So, let’s take a look at the tributes, er, actors, who will be playing the leads in the film. Unlike the folks doing press releases, I will follow the example of Effie Trinket: ladies first.

Rachel Zegler

On Monday, actress Rachel Zegler tweeted out a cryptic message, the first letters of which spelled out LUCY GRAY BAIRD, so it was not a big surprise when, on Tuesday, she was announced as having been cast in that role.  The casting itself is a little surprising. Zegler, likeLawrence at the time of her casting in the first Hunger Games film, is a big media darling these days. She starred as Maria in the highly successful Steven Spielberg version of West Side Story that ran away with armloads of awards, and she’ll be playing Snow White in (another) Disney version of that story, due out next year (I’m still partial to the adorably quirky Mirror, Mirror, so I am not sure why we needed another Snow White reboot).

Obviously, her casting as Snow White is a little unconventional, but that seems to be a theme with that film so far, and casting her as Lucy Gray is also somewhat surprising. Certainly, she can sing, which is a requirement, but, according to her Internet Movie Database page, one of her big musical claims to fame (in addition to her work on West Side Story) is covering a Lady Gaga song. That doesn’t exactly fit the mold of Lucy Gray, singer of folk tunes and murder ballads. Zegler, from New Jersey, comes from a  theater school/performing arts background. Unfortunately, that background has probably not given her much experience singing “Down in the Valley.”

Physically, at least Zegler is close to the right height (unlike Lawrence), and she can play an ingenue.  Lucy Gray could be said to be playing that role herself, creating the engaging image that attracts sponsors as surely as it does Snow, so that is good start. She is not the Lucy Gray Baird in my head, but perhaps she’ll do. She is a Hollywood sweetheart: diverse, multi-talented, professionally trained, and raking in the big bucks starring in big films, so her casting may seem surprising from a literary perspective, but not from a show business one.

Tom Blyth

At first, I was quite excited about the casting of English actor Tom Blyth, primarily because he has just been playing Billy the Kid on a television series. Mr. Bonney, like Mr. Snow, was a sociopath who killed any number of people, but who also had a charm of his own. Plus, he was only 5’8, and Snow bemoans the fact that his wartime near-starvation has stunted his growth. However, it appears Mr. Blyth is actually six feet tall, so he’s too tall for both of those roles, technically. One would think that Hollywood, after giving the charming 5’7 Tom Cruise years of highly lucrative work, would be comfortable with hiring people who were under six feet tall, but apparently not.Other than that, he looks like a good fit for the role.

He has piecing eyes and the charisma he’ll need. Of course, hair color is easily altered, so he may be made to fit the role fairly well. Time will tell. He could have real “authority.”

More players?

Now that the central two roles have been filled, it remains to complete the cast. We’ll need a compelling Sejanus Plinth (I’d like Josha Stradowski in that role, if he’s not still busy with Wheel of Time. He does anguish well) and a couple dozen mentors and tributes of varying degrees of ability, guile, and longevity (I am still holding out hope for some unknowns here). I hope actual Appalachian musicians are used for the Covey. Unfortunately, all the Little Wharvey Gals from O Brother, Where Art Thou are far too old now.

For the horrible Dr. Gaul, a heavy lifter is needed, someone like Glenn Close, whom I think would be fantastic, and the other “adults” should likewise be “names” who can handle the nuances and the political dance that equates survival in the world Collins has created.

What are your thoughts, insights, and suggestions?

Standby for more comments from me, whether you want them or not!

Film News for Hunger Games Prequel: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes Planned for 2023 Thanksgiving Release

As we knew they would be, the Hollywood Gamemakers are hard at work on the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s brilliant Hunger Games prequel: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. It really is a remarkable novel. If you need a refresher, check out mine and our Headmaster‘s thoughts from its release in 2020, as well as a run-down of connections to the original trilogy. If you have not read the novel, you have time before the film’s planned 2023 release. If you have read it, you are probably wondering how the filmmakers will deal with the main character, the young up-and-comer Coriolanus Snow, as well as some of the complex and fascinating Machiavellian themes.Of course the movie business loves unpleasant protagonists, from the Joker to Venom, so they are doubtless planning another humongous blockbuster, once again without the slightest indication that they understand the irony of these splashy productions that hit theaters during the Thanksgiving season. The film is still in the early stages, with little known except that the director will once again be Francis Lawrence, and that other production staff and writers (including Collins) involved with the previous films will be joining this one.  No casting has been announced, but I would love to start taking suggestions. If you have ideas about who should play the deviously charming Snow, the talented (and also devious) Lucy Gray Baird, the hapless optimist Sejanus,  the horrifying Dr. Gaul, or any other of the fascinating characters, let’s start discussing those now, before the Hollywood people invariably make choices that make us scratch our heads. What are your expectations for what will, sadly, always be called “the fifth Hunger Games movie”?


The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes: Top Ten Pointers to the Trilogy

It’s been an exciting past week or so here for serious readers, from J.K. Rowling’s new slow-release of The Ickabog to the release of the new Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. We’ve already taken a few looks here at the new prequel, which will doubtless continue to yield further treasures upon repeated readings. If you have not yet checked out The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, I hope you will, and that you will join our conversation on its many layers. One of the most interesting features is the way in which the novel uses foreshadowing for events that we, savvy readers of the original trilogy, already know well. Although set 64 years before Katniss Everdeen’s name comes out of the Reaping bowl in the well-manicured hand of Effie Trinket, this novel should only be read by those who have already completed the trilogy. Like the Star Wars prequels, with moments like Obi-Wan Kenobi chiding his friend Anakin Skywalker, “You’re going to be the death of me,” BSS  is an experience that only works if the readers know what is coming. This is a useful technique in literature and film. After all, we cannot gasp with horror when Oedipus declares that the murderer of Laius will be exiled and live in misery, unless we are familiar with the myth, so we know he himself is the man he seeks and that he will indeed be ruined and miserable.  We cannot mentally headslap people in Titanic when they declare the ship’s invincibility if we do not know that the ship is going down, along with many of its passengers and their hubris.

So here are our first “top ten” moments and themes of The Ballad of Songbirds Snakes that point to and set up the trilogy we already know, some of us quite well. This is just the start to a much longer list, one that I am sure will grow with each reading. [Read more…]

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes: Three Notes on Hunger Games Prequel

I have written a great deal here about the work of Suzanne Collins, from her much neglected Gregor the Underlander novels and When Charlie McButton Lost Power, to her Hunger Games trilogy and even the children’s picture book she wrote post fame and fortune, Year of the Jungle. My exegesis of the Katniss Everdeen books in various HogwartsProfessor posts ran to close to 60,000 words and I regret never turning the three principle Mockingjay posts — The Spiritual Allegory, The Literary Alchemy, and Katniss’ Apotheosis — into a proper book. I think so much about her that this week last year I wrote about ‘Whatever Happened to Suzanne Collins?’

No surprise, then, that I read The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes on the day of release. You may be surprised that I have not shared my thoughts on the subject until now, in great contrast with the weeks following publication of Mockingjay, the trilogy finale. I plead “full-time job in ‘essential business,’ being overdue on a thesis chapter, and, most important, perhaps, that I have not reviewed the Hunger Games series and re-read Songbirds and Snakes in light of that review.” I have scandalized Potter fans in the past by saying that I think Collins’ achievement with Mockingjay was at least on par and perhaps greater than Deathly Hallows; her work deserves better than a flip newspaper review.

Having said all that, I do want to share three spoiler-free points about the prequel just released to encourage those on the fence about reading it to purchase a copy immediately. Elizabeth Baird (!) Hardy has already posted her first thoughts and I hope point by point discussion of the book and its relationship to Collins’ oeuvre can begin here, if not next week then next month. I’m hoping that Elizabeth and Prof Lana Whited, editor of Critical Insights: The Hunger Games Trilogy, will join Katy McDaniel and myself for a podcast discussion, too, at Reading, Writing, Rowling.

My three points are (1) the most important paragraph to read is the opening of Collins’ acknowledgements at the back of the book, (2) the departure from Collins’ heretofore locked in story structure in this novel, and (3) some thoughts about the title and Collins’ signature presentation of front-and-back.

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