Did The Phantom Menace die for nothing? Author Suzanne Collins played a risky game with her Panem-saga prequel novel, plotting how the series’ villain became the monster we know. Despite the tangible world-building and grandeur of the 2020 book and this faithful-to-a-fault film, they share a nagging issue: President Snow’s fill-the-blanks backstory isn’t as engaging as the plot’s other main strand.
With director Francis Lawrence (Catching Fire, Mockingjay Part 1, and Part 2) returning, Ballad starts strong and bleakly dystopian in the post-war ‘Dark Days’. Sixty-four years pre-Katniss, the Snow family are struggling. But 18-year-old student Coriolanus (Tom Blyth) – Coryo to friends and fam – sees hope when he’s appointed to mentor a tribute and help reignite the flagging Hunger Games. Might travelling singer Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) redeem him? Or is the evil beard already rising?
Katniss aside, everything fans might want from a Panem revisit is here: state-enforced sadism, complex romance, lofty philosophical notions, wicked politics, genetically enhanced creatures, character names out of a Horrible Histories sketch (Hilarius Heavensbee, Susan Semolina-Thrower – one of these is a fib).
Nicely knotty themes of trust and mistrust snake through the tangled plot, writhing and biting. And the low-tech games themselves are grimly gripping, with pitchforks, poison, drones, and deadly reptiles all cruelly deployed.
And songs? Enter Zegler, making terrific work of Lucy Gray's survivor’s instincts and performative aptitude. Whether you crave those old tunes or not, she sure commits to ’em, showing how the melodies sidle under Snow’s skin and haunt him. While Blyth is subtle and sure as Coryo, pre-echoing Donald Sutherland without forcing the point, it’s Zegler who emerges victorious.
So it’s a pity that, as on page, Lucy Gray gradually becomes a distant, elusive character. Burdened with the need to move the pieces into (and out of…) position for the original trilogy, the film’s disappointingly flat, drawn-out final third loses sight of its core asset and struggles to deliver the desired pay-offs.
Franchise Easter eggs and Zegler aside, the detailed production designs and supporting cast provide chewy pleasures. Viola Davis has fun as potentially silly mad scientist Dr Gaul, while Peter Dinklage brings presence to self-medicated games progenitor Casca Highbottom, deserving more screen time.
Otherwise, Ballad echoes some of the problems of prequels from Tatooine to Middle-earth, emphasising reverse-engineering over a compelling drive to the required tragic crescendo. Since we know where Snow lands, this slippery tale needed more on its plate.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is released in US and UK cinemas on November 17.