By Janie Walenda
I would like to apologize to everyone who was in the theater with me during “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes,” my brother most of all. I am a firm believer in the excited arm smack during movies, and my brother was the unlucky recipient of numerous such arm smacks as I freaked out watching one of my recent favorite books make its way to the big screen.
When I first heard about the “Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” book, I was not a fan. Why would I want to read a 500-page sob story about the tragic backstory of the villain from “The Hunger Games?” There was nothing redeemable about President Snow in the original books or films, and I resented the idea of redeeming him or sympathizing with him in this prequel.
Surprisingly, “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” produced the opposite effect for me: after reading the book three times and now seeing the film, I hate his character even more. Far from trying to redeem him, author Suzanne Collins and screenwriters Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt paint a picture of an egotistical young man who chooses to let power consume him, despite being surrounded by people who believe in, and desperately cling to, the possibility of goodness in him.
This picture is brought to life through an incredible performance by Tom Blyth. Not only does he make a convincing younger version of Donald Sutherland’s President Snow, but he also gives an impressively complex performance, perfectly balancing the line between the villain of the series and the hero of his own story.
One of my greatest fears going into the film was that it would be impossible to capture Snow’s inner monologue from the book, something I think is critical to understanding that he’s always been a nasty person. While the film still loses a lot of the nuance that this inner monologue provides, Blyth’s performance and smart directing from Francis Lawrence convey many of these nuances and demonstrate Snow’s attitude and disdain for others with just facial expressions and camera cuts.
The performances are stellar across the board, making it hard to choose a standout. Rachel Zegler is pitch-perfect as Lucy Gray Baird, and it is hard to sing her praises enough when it comes to her musical performances throughout the film. Josh Andrés Rivera as Sejanus Plinth provides a tragic unflinching moral compass for the ensemble that also demonstrates the kind of leader Snow could have become.
I am ashamed to admit that I was doubtful of Viola Davis as Dr. Gaul, if only because I am used to seeing her play more stoic characters. I never should have doubted her, as Davis brings a maniacal and malicious energy to the character that perfectly brings Gaul from page to screen.
While the film makes many changes from the book, all of the changes feel purposeful and I’m not upset with any of them. Despite many changes to the actual Hunger Games of the book, the film does justice to my favorite scenes, which include Reaper’s memorial and the arrival of the rainbow snakes.
My main issue with the film, however, is how much of the mentor and tribute content was cut. In the book, all of the mentors and tributes are fleshed out more, which enriches both the commentary of the book and the extensive worldbuilding that takes place. Clemensia in particular, who is a major supporting character in the book, gets completely lost in the film. These changes are understandable, and I think they made the right cuts to condense the story into a cohesive film, but these changes do impact the film and some of its potential for emotional impact.
My biggest issue with the original four “The Hunger Games” films is that they lost the nuance of the books in favor of leaning into the popular young adult tropes of the time, most notably the love triangle. While “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” does fall into this trap occasionally, for the most part the film avoids softening Suzanne Collins’ writing. The film doesn’t attempt to redeem Snow or romanticize his relationship with Lucy Gray, both of which were concerns of mine going into the theater. For the most part, the message of the film aligns with the message of the book; the more human Snow is shown to be, the more dangerous and vile he is.
While “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is certainly not a perfect movie, it is about as close as a book-to-film adaptation can get. The book fan in me may want a five-hour adaptation that adapts every line from the book, but the film fan in me is impressed with how “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is a film that does justice to its characters and themes while condensing and adapting them to screen.
“The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is currently playing in theaters.
Janie Walenda is a junior Global Business major and the A&E editor for Cedars. She is overly passionate about animation, caffeine and weirdly enough Dracula.
Images courtesy of Lionsgate Films.