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The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes might be the best Hunger Games movie yet

The Hunger Games prequel finds a new wrinkle in a story we thought we knew.

Two young people standing beside a high fence, looking intently at each other.
That moment when you, a Queen, come across another Queen and discuss how best to maximize your joint slay.
Murray Close/Lionsgate
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

When Mockingjay: Part II, the last Hunger Games movie, was released in 2015, Barack Obama was president, Taylor Swift’s original 1989 album was the only version in existence, and Jon Snow was maybe dead on Game of Thrones. Now, eight years after the original cinematic series concluded (and 13 after the release of the final novel), The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes invites us back to the brutal world of Panem, its flamboyantly named characters like Clemensia Dovecote and Palmyra Monty, and of course, all that ritualistic kid-killing.

Remarkably, Songbirds & Snakes has found a way to make the Hunger Games feel new and sharp. Given that it’s been so long, that the books and original movies were well-executed (to the point that the Hunger Games spurred an entire copycat YA cottage industry), and worn down by the cinematic churn of IP mining, my guard was up. Yet, driven by its two charismatic leads, Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler, sharp writing, and well-executed storytelling, the prequel finds a way to be as thoughtful and agile as the best of the series.

Songbirds & Snakes flips everything we know about the Games, taking us to where it all started and Coriolanus Snow’s (Blyth) introduction to them. Snow eventually becomes the sadistic mastermind who runs the Hunger Games, but he wasn’t always this way. This rich and fancy psychopath wasn’t always in charge of the Coachella of children-killing! Songbirds & Snakes isn’t an exoneration of the character, but rather a deep and riveting look at power, the lengths people are willing to go to achieve it, and what it all means in a world we thought we knew so well.

Songbirds & Snakes boldly asks: What if the Hunger Games was budget?

Songbirds & Snakes takes place 64 years before Katniss Everdeen’s reaping and first Hunger Games victory. The necessity for the specific, not quite six-and-a-half-decade time jump is because Everdeen’s second foray into the games is the 75th annual iteration and features the special rule that it will be an all-winners season. Doing the math and working backward, 64 years in the past brings us to the 10th annual Hunger Games, which, aside from the name, barely resembles the teenage battle royale we see Everdeen compete in.

The main difference between Everdeen’s Hunger Games and Songbirds & Snakes’s Hunger Games is that everyone’s poor and ugly — even those in the Capitol.

The Capitol, which has just quashed the rebellion, is a dusty shell of its glamorous self. Neighboring districts, who lost the war, are in even worse shape. The Games themselves — 24 children; two from each of the nation’s 12 districts; a massive fight to the death; one winner — do not have any funding. The busted arena is barely bigger than a high school auditorium. The tributes are neither photogenic nor are they trained. Ratings are poor because, it turns out, no one wants to watch dirty, starving, unathletic, mildly diseased children kill each other.

The arena in Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is dusty and pathetic.
Murray Close/Lionsgate

Bad viewership isn’t good for the people in charge because the Games are needed to stifle a rebellion. The more Panem’s districts are pitted against each other, the less they see that the only way to break free from an authoritarian regime is to unite to overthrow the Capitol. If the Games fail, so does the Capitol’s chokehold on the Districts. Desperate to cling to power and to keep the Games going, the Capitol decides to do what any struggling network would do: go for an all-out ratings grab.

[Related: The new Hunger Games prequel is introspective and dark as hell]

That puts one Snow, who we know will be the future president of Panem, in the spotlight. Snow, twinkish and spry here instead of an old, coughing-up-blood Donald Sutherland, is the best and brightest student at the Academy, the finishing school for Panem’s future authoritarians and oligarchs. Snow and 23 of his fellow students are, in an attempt to spruce up viewership, picked to mentor tributes. If their tribute wins and ratings go up, they’ll potentially win a cash prize.

Snow needs the money because he’s been faking his wealth this entire time, a secret that would have him ostracized from the rest of the Capitol rich kids and future standing in the Capitol itself. A fraudulent rich guy who needs reality television to become rich, famous, and president — Panem and the real United States are truly such different places.

Without any other financial options, he jumps into mentoring Lucy Gray (Zegler), a theater kid from District 12. Seeing that Gray is a natural performer and talented singer, Snow is smart enough to realize that the Capitol’s desire to renew the Games and Gray’s survival are one and the same: If he can make the citizens of the Capitol fall in love with her, people will watch. If people watch, the Games can continue.

It’s here, right before Gray’s entrance into the arena, that Songbirds & Snakes unfurls its genuinely clever and nimble storytelling. Snow knows that Gray can’t fight, so he tries to get her in front of as many cameras as possible. He tells her to perform in her pre-fight interview, and even finds her a guitar. He has her talking with kids and singing about her ex-boyfriend.

Given that viewers of the previous movies know what the Games will eventually become and how beautifully terrifying they’ll be when Everdeen’s turn is up, these moments feel like watching the beginning of a portrait. The rigorous makeovers the tributes will eventually be subject to, the pre-interviews with Caesar Flickermann (Stanley Tucci), and the plush accommodations on the bullet train all start with Snow and Gray. All these decisions — making the tributes beautiful, making sure they’re marketable — were conceived by Snow to drive up viewership.

Snow quickly finds out that everyone wants to watch clean, well-fed, athletic, healthy child assassins kill each other.

The Hunger Games are the best part of The Hunger Games

Without a shadow of a doubt, the most underwhelming part of the Hunger Games book trilogy — Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay — and the movie tetralogy are the conclusions. The cinematic adaptations were especially egregious since they split Suzanne Collins’s final book into two parts.

Mockingjay is messier than its predecessors — complete with booby-trapped streets, camera crews, some weird genetically modified lizard people that eat handsome boys — and it often feels like a mad scramble to get the Districts’ rebellion lined up and squared away. The first two books, which don’t have the pressure to spell out what the downfall of the Capitol and its repercussions look like, are tighter storytelling.

Doctor Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis) is absolutely teaching this Twink Snow how to be evil.
Murray Close/Lionsgate

Collins’s genius is that she initially created the Games to be horrific but also tantalizing. There’s a reason people watch, even if everyone knows authoritarians sending kids to slaughter is capital-E evil. Bringing characters like the sugar-sucking, sun-kissed Finnick Odair and battle-axe-wielding Johanna Mason into the arena ramps up the fantasy and allure. Collins creates characters so charismatic and with such mythic origin stories that it can feel to readers that being dropped into the Games wouldn’t be that bad if you got to be an alliance with Odair and Mason — even though that’s the kind of mindset that threatens to undermine the entire premise that the Hunger Games are actually gruesome and awful.

The political and social themes of the original novels are all a bit clearer in Songbirds & Snakes. The Games resemble a sadistic thought experiment rather than a well-funded kid-killing Olympics. There’s no glamour. There’s no beauty. There’s no romance or melodrama in the arena to distract from what’s really happening. Stripped bare, the gore and gristle of the murders peek through a bit more, as do the Capitol’s intentions.

Like Everdeen, Odair, and Mason, Snow and Gray need the Games to ensure their own survival. They’ve both been dealt some awful cards and have to fight against a system — Snow vs. the classist Capitol; Gray vs. the literal Hunger Games — that’s stacked against them. Both come to figure out that Gray’s survival doesn’t guarantee anything, not even her own life, which is part of the Hunger Games constitution, is it not? And if barely surviving is not on even the table, then what is?

The idea that anything in this world — happiness, wealth, freedom, survival — can be easily won is just another illusion. Buying into that idea means believing the system won’t screw you in the end. Winning is nothing but one of Panem’s many elegant lies. Watching Snow realize this, you don’t even need to see the other movies to know the man he’ll eventually become and what he’ll do to get there.