Hollywood was never going to stop making more Hunger Games movies. Based on Suzanne Collins’s best-selling dystopian young-adult novels, the first four films released from 2012 to 2015 collectively grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide. They dominated pop culture: Jennifer Lawrence became a bona fide movie star; videos on how to replicate her character’s side braid flooded the internet; the phrase hunger games became shorthand for any kind of intense competition. We saw a wave of copycat franchises—Divergent, The Maze Runner, and The Mortal Instruments, among many, many others—that never reached The Hunger Games level of success.
Yet the prequel hitting theaters this weekend, titled The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, is no mere franchise extension. Yes, it tells the origin story of the series’ villain—President Coriolanus Snow, played by Donald Sutherland in the original films—and yes, it takes viewers back to Panem, the oppressive nation that forces children to slaughter one another in annual televised battle royales, but it also treads fresh territory. The film poses a question the previous Hunger Games movies largely avoided: How exactly did the Games become such a cultural phenomenon—and why do we, by extension, still have an appetite for more?
That may sound too meta and heady for a YA series that once placed a heavy emphasis on which suitor its heroine would choose (Team Peeta, obviously), but Ballad organically weaves a critique of its own franchise’s success into the story. The film follows Coriolanus (Tom Blyth) as a young man, and studies, through his trajectory, how the Games became must-watch programming. When Ballad begins, Coriolanus is a top student at the Capitol—the home of Panem’s privileged ruling class—desperate to win his school’s prestigious prize so that his family can continue living among the wealthy. To do so, he must mentor a tribute (one of the Games’ participants) and create the kind of drama that will revive the Games.
A decade in, the event has come to feel dull and routine, neither entertaining the people of the Capitol nor punishing those in the poor districts that rebelled and led to the creation of the Games. But Coriolanus has ideas, including making the audience care more deeply about the tributes as actual humans—a goal that eventually affects his understanding of himself. This is a film, then, that considers the power of storytelling and spectacle—and how popular narratives can shape worldviews, sell ideas, and corrupt anyone.
The initial Hunger Games films covered similar ground—Katniss (Lawrence) had image consultants and sat through plenty of interviews to win favors—but never as explicitly or as consistently as Ballad does. Katniss was never a natural onstage, but both Coriolanus and his assigned tribute, Lucy Gray Baird (West Side Story’s Rachel Zegler), are performers at heart. He’s pretending to be as wealthy as his classmates are, keeping his family’s poverty a secret and manipulating those around him. She’s a gifted singer, unprepared for the horrors of the Games but plucky enough to charm people with her voice and enigmatic enough to keep her mentor guessing. The Hunger Games franchise examined the influence of propaganda through Katniss’s discomfort with being a symbol, but Ballad scrutinizes those ideas further by building them into its central plot. Coriolanus and Lucy Gray must attract support from the Games’ viewers; as they do, their relationship blossoms into a romance that’s never on solid footing. The film draws tension from the way both Coriolanus and Lucy Gray learn to fool their audiences—and each other.
That romance is key to making Ballad feel different from The Hunger Games of yesteryear. Katniss’s story was about a political awakening, and the films were about a wide-scale revolution. Though its 158-minute runtime indicates otherwise, Ballad has a tighter, more intimate focus. Coriolanus, through the different chapters of his coming-of-age, comes to realize that the most effective tool for survival is a good story. That helps him guide Lucy Gray in the Games, win approval in the Capitol when the odds are against his favor, and make Ballad’s predetermined ending—Coriolanus’s turn to the dark side—meaningful rather than perfunctory.
As a viewer, I found myself rooting for Coriolanus, because the film continually places him in characteristically heroic positions: the underdog in his class, one half of a star-crossed romance. When he continued the cycle of violence, I felt crushed but unsurprised. The film isn’t trying to humanize him; instead, it shows how he comes to do what most people tend to do in real life: He chooses the easier narrative, the one more people—including himself—are willing to accept. Of course the Academy’s top student has to eventually lead Panem’s regime.
That’s the secret to The Hunger Games longevity. On the page and on the screen, the story carried a subtly cynical streak. Like the other dystopian sci-fi book-to-film adaptations that followed, it focused on children rebelling against authority to reform a world that older generations ruined—a resonant idea for young people growing up amid seemingly endless tragedies. But unlike those other titles, The Hunger Games underlined Panem’s use of soft power, and showed how closely it resembles the world we live in.
The Games are designed to be televised, and showmanship is as much of a skill as, say, being able to shoot a bow and arrow. In Ballad, the designer of the Games—played by a scene-stealing Viola Davis—is as powerful as Coriolanus will later be. And the Games’ host, Lucky Flickerman (a wonderfully hammy Jason Schwartzman), sprinkles his commentary with pithy observations for the masses watching. After a tribute carries out a mercy kill and earns a reward out of viewer sympathy, Lucky injects a piece of advice like he’s teaching a lesson. “That’s what happens when you do stuff,” he says. “You get attention.”
Ballad may be bloated, but it understands that The Hunger Games, as a franchise, didn’t succeed because it had a clear political philosophy. (If anything, it was vague enough for any party to latch on to.) It succeeded because it entertained; it did stuff—stuff such as cast a superstar at a pivotal point in her career and popularize a subgenre before the copycats came along—and it got attention. But more than anything, The Hunger Games told a story that reinforced its audience’s notions of good and evil. As much as Ballad is reviving the franchise because the original installments made billions, it also recognizes—and interrogates—the fact that the Games themselves were never the draw. The reassurance that at least our world isn’t yet as bleak as that of Panem is enough.