Opinion | Don’t get your hopes up for ‘A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’

By Jameson Keebler, For The Pitt News

Now that the kids who grew up during the “Hunger Games” craze are all grown up, it is time for Suzanne Collins to get some more cash out of the property. The film adaptation of “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes,” the prequel to the “Hunger Games” series, is set to come out in 2023, and while the cast is stacked with young stars, the movie is not going to be a meaningful addition to the series. 

The choice to focus an entire novel and film on President Snow hurts the powerful metaphor that exists in the center of the story. Breaking down the villain that is supposed to be a stand-in for an entire political system only waters down the allegory.

“The Hunger Games” is written as a glimpse into the dark future of America. Collins doesn’t hide this, as she has revealed that the idea for the novels came from channel-surfing and switching channels between reality TV and news footage from the Iraq war. The series is also meant to represent the televised shootings, especially of children, that occur in America every day. 

With this fact in mind, it is easy for anyone to put together the reality TV elements that come from the flashy and flamboyant Capital and the majority of people who live in the districts and die for the entertainment. “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” abandons this concept. This novel attempts to humanize the Capital, which was previously interpreted as a representation of the worst urges of humanity.

It follows Coriolanus — President Snow before he is given that title — as he works as a mentor in the 10th Hunger Games. He is a poor orphan by Capital standards, so this is depicted as an important career opportunity for him, but he also shows a natural talent for the games and enjoyment in the more violent aspects. 

In the novel he has to mentor Lucy Gray, a quirky and outgoing teenage girl from District 12. At the beginning of their partnership, it is solely professional. His motivation for keeping her alive is solely the social and political advances that it would bring him. This shifts once he falls in love with her. 

The original series follows Katniss, a poor teenager who is forced into a life of violence and death in order to represent a movement that she never wanted to have responsibility for. In contrast, Coriolanus only comes off as narcissistic as he whines in his penthouse. He is poor, but he is Capital poor, not District poor. His inherited penthouse is under-furnished, but he is not Gale, putting his name into the reaping forty times in order to buy supplies to keep his family alive. 

This story attempts to give background on key pieces of symbolism from the original series, but the development of these symbols weakens their effect. It feels like she is screaming, “Remember when this happened before! Wasn’t that book great?!”

The most obvious example of this is the obnoxious use of roses. In the original stories, Snow sends Katniss roses as a veiled threat. It is a reminder of his ultimate control and that he will always be watching her, even in her home. In the prequel, roses are everywhere. Coriolanus is constantly being gifted roses and giving them to others, with no acknowledgment of the emotional weight that they held in the original series. If someone only read this novel, they would probably only think, “Wow, this guy really likes roses!” 

Another moment of damaging context came at the climax of the novel. It is revealed that Lucy Gray, the District 12 tribute that Coriolanus fell in love with, wrote “The Hanging Tree,” Katniss’s signature ballad, which is used to rally the people. Throughout the original series, the song is interpreted as a chilling description of a murder and the darkness of life in the districts. It is assumed to be passed down through District 12, an eerie reminder of those they have lost to the capital. 

This prequel explains that Lucy wrote the song word for word after her own experience. The song loses its status as folklore, and instead, it becomes a cheap retelling of a scene that is played out right before us. Now we know that when President Snow heard the song, he wasn’t thinking about the war that he caused, but the girl that he dated for a few months. 

The character of President Snow was not something that required elaboration. His villain arc is satisfyingly tied up within the original series. The audience sees him as the cruel dictator, but we also meet his granddaughter, a polite young girl who is enamored with Katniss to the point of wearing her hair in a braid. We see Snow’s discomfort at seeing these traits in someone that he loves.

Later in the series, when he is captured and set to be executed by Katniss, she instead kills Coin and Snow is trampled by the people of District 13. This is an acknowledgment that all power is not held within people. Those people eventually succumbed to the corrupt system that kept them in place.

Writing a 517-page novel diving into Snow’s character and over explaining every aspect of his personality undermines the ending that the original series built up to. 

It is hard not to read this as either a dumbing simplification or a response to the political climate of when this novel was released in 2020. It seemed like a weak call for unity, as it is no longer the rebels against the rulers, but everyone together — although anyone below the highest of elites who lived through 2020 could say that is not true. The rich were able to stay safe from the pandemic and continue to get richer, while minimum wage workers put their health on the line because their labor was deemed essential. 

As someone who saw herself as Katniss when reading for the first time, I was confused on what was expected of me as the reader. It seems as though Collins no longer expects the reader to look up to Katniss, but to Coriolanus, the young adult, upper-middle-class, social climber who has just enough trauma to make up for his bad parts. 

This novel was a disappointment, and you can not expect more from the upcoming film adaptation. “The Hunger Games” is just another property that has fallen into our current entertainment cycle of constant remakes and prequels that hardly evoke the spirit of the originals. 

Jameson Keebler writes primarily about pop culture and current events. Write to her at [email protected].