In The Hunger Games four-film series (2012 – 2015), we follow the heroic activities of Katness Everdeen (played brilliantly by Jennifer Lawrence) as she goes up against the leaders of the Capitol of Panen and its tyrannical leader Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland). Seventy some years earlier, the districts of a Panen revolted against the rich and the powerful in the Capitol. When they failed, an unusual punishment was chosen to remind them of the futility of resistance. Each year, there is a public "reaping" in the 12 districts during which two young people, one male and one female, are chosen as "tributes." They are brought to the Capitol, trained in battle, and sent into an arena to fight until only one remains. These "Hunger Games" are described in a propaganda film as a "pageant of honor, courage, and sacrifice" that are "how we remember our past" and "how we safeguard our future." The event is broadcast on television throughout the country, much to the entertainment of the decadent and self-indulgent people of the Capitol.

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a prequel to that story. It takes place 64 years earlier than the first film. The Hunger Games are ten years old and waning in popularity with the television audience. The chief gamesmaker (Viola Davis) and the Dean of the Capitol Academy that created the Hunger Games (Peter Dinklage) decide to add a new element to heighten the suspense. There will still be two tributes taken from each district in Panen, but they will each be given a “mentor” from the Capitol who will help them plan strategy and promote them to gain donations of items they can use during the fight.

Enter 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), considered to be the leading candidate for a prestigious academic award that will ensure his family’s security and his college tuition. Needless to say, he is upset when he learns the award will go to the mentor whose tribute wins the Hunger Games. His mentee, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), is from the 12th district. Petite and pretty, she does not seem to have much chance in the Games, but she does win followers when she is introduced on television and sings a beautiful ballad.

Lucy Gray Baird in the Arena

This film provides an early glimpse of the layout of the Games. Unlike the elaborate setups in the other films, the arena is one large circular space with few escape routes. The tributes are kept in a zoo-like area beforehand so people can choose their favorites. Once the games begin, the killing is quick. The announcer (Jason Schwartzman) implies that the whole thing could be over in a day.

What is most interesting in the film, however, is not the settings or the situations but our realization that what we are watching is the origin story for an evil man. Coriolanus seems to have much to recommend him; he’s determined not only to win but to save Lucy Gray Baird and give her a different life. He’s clever, such as when he sends drones carrying water bottles into the arena to knock down some of the other players. How did this caring man turn into President Snow who later will torment Katness Everdeen, her friends, family, and actually the whole of Panen?

One key is his relationship with Lucy Gray Baird. Whereas he has power over her, she is by nature defiant and determined. “Nothing you can take from me is worth keeping,” she sings. When he intervenes in the Games to protect her, he discovers that to protect the prey he has to become a predator. When he feels powerful as a result, we sense a turning point in his character. The Games, he decides, are revealing who he is. Will he accept this or resist it?

Like most movies about dystopias, this film reflects the fears and the excesses of contemporary societies. One excess is the influence of the media and the turning of real-life traumas into entertainments. The other is the challenge to trust. Who can Coriolanus trust? His friends and fellow mentors? Lucy Gray Baird? The gamesmakers who are determined to convert them to their side? As whom he trusts shifts, we see the beginnings of his slide into the evil man we know from the later films. Could it have gone differently? You decide.

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