A little context is required; the most hyped movie of Thanksgiving holiday 2023, Francis Lawrence’s Hunger Games prequel hits theatres worldwide sans any advertising on Twitter/X from the film’s creators, the studio Lionsgate. The wayward social media group’s espousal of anti-Semitism from current ‘owner’ Elon Musk has finally proved too much for Comcast, Disney, IBM, Apple and others. While I wouldn’t be spending much on advertising on a platform hell-bent of making money from setting users against each other, I also can’t align my own values with Musk’s abhorrent suggestions about ‘the actual truth’ about the Jewish race. Slip back a century, and we might be having the same conversation about the negative influence of controlling press barons in the 1930’s, but there’s a difference; the way we participate with social media isn’t as passive readers, but as active participants, and Musk’s dangerous words have already cost lives.
I haven’t read any of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games novels, centred around the idea of a dystopia Battle Royale in which the powdered-wig rich rule, but based on the film versions, I’d be tempted to start with Songbirds & Snakes, a look back at the making of principal antagonist, President Coriolanus Snow, played by Donald Sutherland in the movies and by a game Tom Blyth here. Snow didn’t invent the Hunger Games, but this film shows how Snow popularised a fading notion of combative conflict by allowing the public to play an active role by making live donations to their competing tribute. That’s a key difference between social and legacy media, and as a critique of where we’re going wrong in the 21st century, The Hunger Games novels and movies have done a good job of awakening young people to the dangers of autocracy and the specious notion of morality based on ratings. So in a story that appeals to the young at heart, Snow falls hard in love with the District 12 tribute he’s supposedly mentoring; she’s ‘rainbow girl’ Lucy Gray (West Side Story’s Rachel Zegler) whose simple brand of musical prowess and dust-bowl chic are at odds with the slick, sick machinations of sinister ruling state Panem. While games author Cas Highbotton (Peter Dinklage) frets from the side-lines, head game-maker Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis) is quick to spot and correct Snow’s flirtation with the power of love…
‘I am Dr Volumnia Gaul…I have broken free of my laboratory today to examine you!’ Yes, there’s always lots of fruity dialogue in The Hunger Games, but this backstory tones down the arena-based action; there’s barely even a mention of the games in which Panem is ‘turning children into spectacles’ in the last hour of this film. Instead we have a Dr Zhivago-style love story between Snow and the musical Lucy Gray; ‘I don’t sing when I’m told to, I sing when I have something to say,’ she explains, and even if her Woody Guthrie-style posturing with her guitar doesn’t kill fascists, she blackens Snow’s lonely heart with stinging rejection. ‘Sing your way out of this one, Lucy Gray,’ needles an opponent, but Snow helps her win her own Hunger Games fight with some well placed drones and a dose of rat-poison. If Lucy Gray is a natural songbird, Snow can’t help being a snake, just as deadly as the slippery, scaly creatures that Gaul lets loose to spice up her ratings. Gray reflects on how the ‘peacekeepers’ of Panem can’t ‘take my humour’ away, but at least there’s amusing comic relief from the po-faced media satire here in the form of Jason Schwartzman’s presenter Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman, who presents with a dash of amateur magic and a gift for his other role as a weatherman.
‘You’ve had enough of the games I see,’ says one character, but the box-office shows that we’re not quite done with The Hunger Games as yet, perhaps because the corrosive sci-fi satire still feels relevant. ‘The world is an arena…’ says Snow, ‘It’s the things we love most that destroy us…’ and while Panem’s attempts to ‘boost morale’ by setting its citizens on each other for the good of their corporate masters, embryonic fascists like Snow bear the emotional cost in the long term. ‘The prize or the girl: how convenient that you don’t have to choose between them,’ offers Gaul, but Snow’s choice proves to be a dramatic one, and his self-destructive impulses get to the heart of the febrile, immoral new world we find ourselves in. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes just about works as a stand-alone film, with obvious symbolism and sharp pretentions that few blockbusters can offer. As a spinoff, it works better than recent Harry Potter or Star Wars offshoots, doubling down on the dark, vainglorious reasons that a poorly-advised man might find himself fast becoming a new Hitler for his age.