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.

Panorama of Panem: Sets and Settings

Although I am a little sad that none of the other films, including this one, have been filmed here in my backyard, or my homeland of Eastern Kentucky, the actual District 12, the settings for this one are powerful. The Capitol scenes, many of which were filmed in Germany, effectively convey the lingering effects of the Dark Days as well as the power of the conquering government. The statuary, banners, and architecture are nice salutes to the fascist, hedonistic worldview that dominates the Capitol. Dr. Gaul’s lab is particularly chilling, as is the arena, especially after the bombing that makes it an even more complex setting for the Tenth Hunger Games. There is a powerful contrast to District 12, which is dirtier than the Capitol, of course, but also less sterile, particularly in scenes at the Meadow and the lake.

One of the best settings in 12 is the tree where Lucy Gray Baird sits composing the original version of “The Hanging Tree.” In addition to the gasps from audience members who have only seen the previous films and haven’t read the book, this scene draws a great parallel to the other films. Although it may not be the same spot, it looks like the location where Katniss and Peeta, in the prologue scene of Mockingjay: Part 2 picnic with their children years after the overthrow of the Capitol. It is nice to imagine that Katniss, for whom the song was such a crucial touchstone, was sitting where it was composed.

District 12, like in the book, is sweltering with summer heat, which also contrasts nicely with the chilly Capitol to which we return at the end of the film with a colder Coriolanus Snow.

Stellar Cast

The cast of the film is quite solid. Big star power is supplied by heavy-lifters Peter Dinklage and Viola Davis, portraying the drug-addicted and haunted Dean Highbottom and the terrifying and manipulative Dr. Gaul respectively. Both of these stars are also remarkable actors, so their performances are brilliant.

The leads, Tom Blyth as Coriolanus Snow and Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird, are both great (more about them in a moment), but I was also very impressed by the young cast members playing the mentors and tributes. Josh Andrés Rivera as Sejanus Plinth is wonderful, bringing just the right blend of naivete and passion to the role. The Tributes in this film are fantastic. In a brilliant casting move, some of these young actors remind the audience that child labor and poverty are realities in the Districts, causing children to be maimed in factories or subjected to illness and injuries. Bobbin, for example, is portrayed by Knox Gibson, a promising young actor who lost his arm in a childhood accident, but who gives the impression that, as an expendable child textile worker, he might have been harmed by machinery. The entire group serves as a painful reminder of the way children are harmed by the cruelty of adults. Even the members of the pack are clearly broken children. Sofia Sanchez, who plays Wovey, is heartbreakingly sweet, and Irene Bohm, as Lamina, gives a subtle and moving performance, but they are all impressive.

Wandering off the Script: Plot changes

No film adaptation of any book is going to be absolutely faithful to the text. Events have to be edited or compressed in order to squish several hundred pages of content into two hours of film. Even with significant editing, this film clocks in at two hours and 37 minutes, but, thankfully, most of the plot and many lines are kept intact. There are a few notable changes to the plot. The film begins with a scene Coriolanus Snow actually recalls later in the story, the night during the war when he witnessed his neighbor sawing off a dead woman’s leg for food. The scene also includes a rabid dog as a foreshadowing both of the fate of one of the tributes and of the horrible muttations in the 74th Games. Then, young Snow learns his father has been killed in District 12. This beginning helps viewers who didn’t read the book to know that the war was brutal to everyone and that the citizens of the besieged Capitol were starving. However, opening with this scene means viewers may also develop a higher level of sympathy with Snow and the Capitol than readers would have (more on that soon).

Another interesting change from the book is creating a surprise of the decision to have Academy students mentor Tributes in the Games. In the book, Snow is well aware of this new development and nervous about it, but in the film, he and his classmates are surprised by this news, allowing some exposition for viewers.

This change, and some of the changes to the pacing and timeline of the story, are results of the medium, although smushing the time sometimes makes the story feel rushed and doesn’t give enough time for relationships to develop. It also leaves out some nice elements from the book, like more time with the Plinth family. With some pieces removed, it is interesting that others are added, like having Snow sneak into the arena after the bombing but before the Games to reconnoiter for Lucy Gray.

Other elements are just switched around, rather than added or removed. Several of the Tributes have different fates in the movie than they do in the book. This is the case with Wovey and Dill. In the book, Dill dies of natural causes, probably tuberculosis, and Wovey is the assumed victim of Lucy Gray’s rat poison smuggled in the compact Snow gives her. In the movie, it is Dill who drinks the poison, while Wovey is one of the victims of the rainbow snakes unleased at the end of the Games. Considering the charming performance of the actress playing Wovey, that is a good change. Another switched death is with the mentors from the bombing. In the book, Gaius Breen succumbs to his injuries, but in the film, it is Felix Ravinstill, son of the president, providing more fodder for Dr. Gaul and her ire at the Districts.

Another useful change is playing at Sejanus’s hanging the recording Snow made of Sejanus revealing his ties to the rebels, the recording that seals his fate and gets him hanged, making him Snow’s third victim. In the book, only Snow and Gaul know the truth, but, even though Snow’s voice is not played, Sejanus must know, in his final seconds, that his friend betrayed him.

One very interesting change with Snow is excluding his performance of the Capitol anthem. In the book, Snow’s singing, which Lucy Gray describes as “having authority,” is an important plot point and helps blur the roles of songbird and snakes between himself and Lucy Gray. In the film, however, the anthem is only a quick aside early in on, and he never sings. Perhaps Tom Blyth isn’t musical, or, as I suspect, perhaps the filmmakers just want to showcase the real songbird in this show (more on her in a bit, too).

A Sympathetic Snow

Despite his singing being cut, Snow in the film comes across as surprisingly sympathetic. Part of this is Hollywood, of course. In his first appearance, Blyth is shirtless, obvious eye-candy, and there are plenty of shots that showcase him as a charming and attractive young man. The filmmakers may not want to make their star too much of a villain from the start, but they do add a nice touch. Just before our first view of teenage Snow, there is a shot of a cockroach and rat poison in his room in the decaying Snow penthouse. In part, this shows the conditions in which the family is living, indicating how far they have fallen. However, sharp-eyed readers will doubtless think of how Snow is clearly a cockroach, a rat, and a poisoner. Thanks to Collins’s wonderful writing, readers know early on that Snow is a sociopath who justifies his increasingly immoral decisions as being necessary, someone else’s fault, or well-intentioned. However, in the film, Snow seems far less Machiavellian. (I saw the film with a brilliant friend who hasn’t yet gotten to read the book, and it was fascinating to compare our notes on Snow’s arc. )

In addition, once he realizes what he has done in getting Sejanus hanged, he is overcome with grief, and he is clearly upset about Lucy Gray at the end. In the book, he handles Senjanus’s death much more cooly, and his decision to try to kill Lucy Gray is clear even before her well-placed snake bites him. Also, he doesn’t take a dip in the lake to dispose of the guns; he has a boat. That swim in the book is important, however, as it ruins his mother’s powder and the family pictures he had in his pocket, but his father’s compass is undamaged, revealing that Coryo is dead and Snow is very much alive. This dark baptismal imagery is lost, unfortunately, but the chilly young man in the closing scenes is definitely as dark as the one in the novel, an effect heightened as he is actually seen murdering Casca Highbottom, an event that takes place off stage in the book. Partly, this is because any director with Peter Dinklage as a character who dies is not going to miss having him do his death scene, but it also adds to the complete image of the man who will be President Snow. Just in case the audience is missing that, the voice of Donald Sutherland, with one of his best lines, reminds us what Snow becomes.

Symbols and Echoes

Although films struggle to convey the kind of depth we expect from books, this one does have some nice literary moments and some great echoes of the other books and films.

I particularly like the use of birds, echoing not only the title but the theme of the mockingjay and other birds  in the books. In addition to the obvious birds, there are a couple of neat ones added. What may be a bird or a bat flies out of the boxcar when the tributes arrive at the train station, startling Coriolanus. I assumed it was a bird, a nice symbol, but it might be a bat, since Jessup’s rabies is caused by a bat bite, according to Lucy Gray. One of Lucky Flickerman’s magic tricks that involves birds is also a nice touch.

Flickerman also has a nice connection to the other books as, at one point, he changes a reservation for “two and a high chair.” Undoubtedly, that high chair is occupied by a young Caesar Flickerman, the host we meet in the 74th Games.

In another reference to those Games, there is a nice stress on Coriolanus and Lucy Gray holding hands, reminiscent of Peeta and Katniss doing the same. Also referencing Katniss, who will bedevil Snow six decades later, there is a nice shot of a quiver of arrows in the center of the arena. No tribute has claimed it, and there doesn’t seem to be a bow available, but the arrows remind us very much of the girl who will bring down the Games and the Capitol in the future. Like Katniss, Lucy Gray is strictly instructed to run away upon the start of the Games. Just as Haymitch tells her to run, Coriolanus breathes “run” as the countdown cues the tributes to spring into action.

One of my favorite salutes to the other books comes in the form of a cookie that Snow eats when he feeds Lucy Gray at the zoo. In Catching Fire, when Snow visits 12 to threaten Katniss, he eats a cookie made by Peeta. Sixty-four years earlier, he is seen with the girl Tribute of 12, eating a cookie.

Another possible salute comes in the form of Lucy Gray’s earring, which Snow pockets at the end. It’s a circle, with little circles on it, reminiscent of the mockingjay pin Katniss will wear in the future. It also harks back to the powerful circle imagery and symbolism  Collins uses throughout all these books.

That circle symbolism also appears in one of the best sets of the film, the Academy classroom. When there are students present, they are in circles, in three tiers, evoking both the circles and the number three that serve as major symbols in the books.

This room is also the scene of Highbottom’s death, which is staged with glorious symbolic weight. His desk is on a circular dais in the center of the room, and as he dies, his head comes to rest beside a stack of three, count ‘em, three books. I tried very hard to read the titles (I’ll have to wait for DVD or streaming to catch those), but the best bit is that each book contains a red bookmark, so Highbottom’s death, that critical moment in the transformation of Snow into a total villain, happens next to three white books with three red ribbons, a great symbolic hat-tip that conveys the alchemical weight of all these books.

 

The Star of the Show: the Music

Although the film overall is not terrible, the element that makes it actually good is the music. The music in all the films has been nice, with a few really great pieces and original songs, but in this film, the music is the star. Rachel Zegler is phenomenal as Lucy Gray Baird. We first see her as Coriolanus and the Capitol viewers do, at the Reaping, when she exudes sass and defiance, snake-bombing the vicious Mayfair Lipp and singing her way into the hearts of the audience. I particularly like how she calls the Peacekeepers “boys” as they escort her, putting them on her own level. Every one of her songs is spectacular, from that Reaping performance to the song she sings the night before the Games begin. That one, “The Ballad of Lucy Gray Baird,” is absolutely perfect. Collins wrote the words, which are set to the tune of one of my favorites, “The Streets of Laredo” (I have a friend who does classic cowboy tunes, and his version is so beautiful that I have requested it for my funeral). Sadly, the song is much shortened in the film, although the complete version is available on the soundtrack. Its effect on the Capitol viewers is very clearly portrayed, demonstrating to Snow that the way to make the Games continue is to work the emotional investment of the audience. Although the film never explains how Lucy Gray gets the guitar, her song has the perfect effect.

All of the Covey songs are delightful, and for those of us from District 12, resonate in our DNA. The performers are all very talented, so they are completely believable as the gifted Covey. Zegler is strong in all of the band scenes, but she really shines in her solo moments. When she is composing what will become “The Hanging Tree,” the audience may get chills, but I have to say I was even more moved by “The Old Therebefore,” which she sings as she is surrounded by the rainbow snakes that have killed all the other remaining tributes. “The Hanging Tree” sequence is completely expected by those of us who have read the book, but that song to the snakes is translated so beautifully to the screen with this song that it is stunning. The music in this film is so good that I have to hope that Collins, who composed the words for the novel, will be getting a Grammy. In any case, I am delighted to hear great Appalachian music and great musicians.

Overall, despite the usual Hollywood stunts, this installment is not bad, and when the music is playing, it’s quite good. I do hope that viewers who have not read the book will do so, and, in the process, that they will appreciate Collins and her artistry.

If you’ve seen the film, please share your thoughts!

Comments

  1. Lana Whited says

    I saw the film today with my son (who read all the original novels and saw the films), and we thought it was a successful adaptation. I agree that Zegler is wonderful as Lucy Gray, although she is different from my conception of the character from the book), and that Rivero completely captures Sejanus Plinth (whose family I also wanted to see more of).

    In some ways, I think this may be my favorite Hunger Games-derived film because the issues it raises about power and loyalty seem so profound. The production design is also very successful. (Maybe an Oscar for that? Oh, wait. It will have to compete with Barbie.)

    And I definitely loved every scene with music and will be seeking out the soundtrack.

    My only regret is that I wanted Viola Davis to put a distinctive spin on a character who seems a pretty conventional villain, and she let me down. Her performance is fine, but the character is a stereotype, and I wanted Davis to break it. I was disappointed that the most distinctive thing about her is her wardrobe. By contrast, Peter Dinklage’s performance as Highbottom has much more nuance.

  2. Thanks, Lana! You won’t be disappointed by the soundtrack, as our mountains sound loud and clear on nearly every track, including several that don’t actually make it into the film.

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