The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes: the Hunger Games series is well past its sell-by date

Tom Blyth as Coriolanus Snow and Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes
Tom Blyth as Coriolanus Snow and Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes - Murray Close/Lionsgate

If your stomach has been rumbling these past eight years for another portion of The Hunger Games, Lionsgate have rustled one up from Suzanne Collins’s 2020 prequel novel, and the vibe is very much: sorry, but this is what we had in the fridge. The first two films in the now five-strong series were the best of the young-adult fantasies of the early 2010s – not least because they made a star of Jennifer Lawrence, whose doughty teenage gladiator, Katniss Everdeen, was at the vanguard of the march away from noughties tween gloss, alongside Kristen Stewart’s Bella from Twilight.

The desperately sincere tone of the time has been replicated here, giving The Ballad of Songbird and Snakes the air not of a reboot but a throwback. Its setting 60-odd years before the first film means no Lawrence this time, but we’re back once again in the Deco-futuristic empire of Panem, where citizens are tuning in for the kill-or-be-killed titular event.

The Games’ origins are still a mystery: presumably an even pre-er quel will address this at some point. Instead, the new film charts the early life of President Coriolanus Snow, played by Donald Sutherland in the original run with prowling lion-in-winter élan. Here, Snow is the young blond scion of a noble house fallen on hard times, and is portrayed by the British newcomer Tom Blyth, who has to carry almost every minute of the film’s two-and-a-half hour running time on his admirably toned shoulders. It’s a burden the 28-year-old bears heroically, though you never feel you are actually watching a young Sutherland, or even a young version of the aloof, enigmatic strategist he so memorably brought to life.

The first flurries of Snow feels like a smart route back into the franchise, but the film hobbles itself almost immediately by requiring us sit through another Hunger Game first. The young Snow becomes an apprentice of sorts to the splendidly named Dr Volumnia Gaul, the wild-haired “gamemaker” played by a joyously OTT Viola Davis. (You may find yourself wishing you were watching the film Davis thought she was making instead.) But he also becomes a mentor to Rachel Zegler’s Lucy Gray Baird, a comely young songstress who is picked as female “tribute” – ie combatant – for the Appalachian rust-and-pine wastes of District 12.

We already know from Spielberg’s West Side Story that Zegler has the voice for the part. But her lantern-eyed fragility makes her hard to buy as a wily survivor – and the central hour of the film, in which Snow first prepares Lucy Gray (never just “Lucy”) for the Games, then watches from the sidelines as they unfold in a drab stone arena, clumps along with heavy-footed obligation. (It’s not exciting and the outcome is never in doubt.) Jason Schwartzman’s puckish commentator has to feign excitement during the dull parts – which is funny in itself, but also a bad sign for us.

When after all this, Snow is packed off to the military, the plot suddenly breathes: these scenes land like an awkward hour-long epilogue, but they’re by far the most dramatically interesting of the lot. Naturally, the film’s ending isn’t one, so further adventures may follow.

Not for me though, thanks, I’m stuffed.

12A cert, 157 min. In cinemas from Nov 17