In the first three books of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling Kirkus-starred Hunger Games series, Coriolanus Snow is the monstrous elderly president of Panem, the totalitarian regime behind an annual competition that pits young “tributes” from various subjugated districts against one another. It’s a battle to the death that’s broadcast all over the country as a major event. Collins’ 2020 prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, flashes back 64 years to show how a teenage Coriolanus embarked on his path to power. However, unlike many other villain origin stories—Wicked, Cruella, the Star Wars prequels—Ballad isn’t about how a good person went bad; it’s about how a bad person got worse. A new movie version, starring Benediction’s Tom Blyth as Coriolanus, tackles this dark tale faithfully but with mixed results. It premieres in theaters on Nov. 17.
Collins reveals Coriolanus’ fierce ambition from Ballad’s very first line: “Coriolanus released the fistful of cabbage into the pot of boiling water and swore that one day it would never pass his lips again.” He comes from a once-wealthy but now-destitute family; his father, a powerful general, and his mother died during the Rebellion about a decade earlier, and now he lives with his elderly Grandma’am and his cousin, Tigris, who has a gift for tailoring. Her talents help him look fashionable and keep up the pretense of his family’s wealth. They’re barely holding onto their position in Panem society, in which he hopes to gain great wealth and power.
As a leading student at the prestigious Academy, he’s one of 24 mentors for the latest Hunger Games’ competitors; he’s determined to impress those in authority—including Volumnia Gaul, the Head Gamemaker—so that he can attend University, the next step in his climb to success. He’s assigned Lucy Gray Baird, a petite, teenage resident of struggling District 12, as his tribute, and at first he’s unimpressed with her chances. However, when she reveals her impressive singing talent and a lively, devil-may-care personality, he realizes that he can make her into a star—which is just what Volumnia Gaul wants, as she seeks to drum up more public interest in the Games. Things don’t go as planned, but Coriolanus remains determined to succeed—whatever it takes.
In the book, Coriolanus is depicted as a cunning, calculating opportunist who doesn’t say a word or take any action before figuring out how it could benefit him. Morality doesn’t come into play for him. For example, he allows a fellow student, Sejanus Plinth, to think that they’re best friends, but only so he can manipulate him into advancing his own grand plans. It’s telling that it’s Sejanus, not Coriolanus, who says, “I mean, what are we doing? Putting kids in an arena to kill each other? It feels wrong on so many levels.” Coriolanus merely allows that “it’s not pretty.” (And it certainly isn’t: The Games’ violence in both the book and film is some of the most brutal in the whole series.)
As the Games go on, Coriolanus becomes closer with Lucy Gray, and one can understand why—she’s enormously talented and charming, after all. A less skillful author would use their deepening relationship to have Coriolanus see the folly of his ways—love conquers all, and all that. However, Collins isn’t interested in such clichés; instead she keenly shows how Coriolanus’ feelings for Lucy Gray are driven by his own narcissism. His moments of jealousy are particularly revealing, and ably show how selfishness can easily lead to violence—even on a national scale. Coriolanus’ actions at the end of the story, as horrible as they are, seem part of natural progression; he wants what he wants, and he’ll do anything to get it.
In the movie version, which omits Collins’ narration, Coriolanus’ motives are far less clear. Viewers are left to ponder his actions in isolation. Is he in love with Lucy Gray, or not? Hard to say, as Blyth’s blank demeanor reveals little. Does he have regrets about his actions? Blyth sometimes plays him that way, and other times he doesn’t. By the end, viewers may feel that some scenes have been left out—scenes that show why Coriolanus decided to follow such an evil path. That’s not the case, though; scene by scene, this is a very faithful adaptation. The problem is that all the parts that take place inside Coriolanus’ sociopathic brain are missing—and, unfortunately, those are the most important parts.
Even so, the film still has much to recommend it. It’s directed by Francis Lawrence, who helmed all but one of the previous Hunger Games films, and he knows how to make this world visually arresting. Panem’s Capitol is a steampunkish delight, full of imposing statues and architectural marvels (with some wartime wreckage around the edges), and the vivid costumes practically pop off the screen; Lucy Gray’s rainbow dress, during her introduction, is particularly memorable.
West Side Story’s Rachel Zegler successfully gets across Lucy Gray’s rebellious appeal, and although the songs she sings work better on the page than on screen, she sells them well. Euphoria’s Hunter Schafer is brightly charming as the upbeat Tigris, and Viola Davis’ menacing performance keeps Volumnia Gaul from ever becoming a cartoon villain. Peter Dinklage also gets a few excellent scenes as Dean Casca Highbottom, the haunted, angry functionary credited with inventing the Hunger Games. That said, those expecting Collins’ more nuanced examination of the banality of evil will find that this movie is playing a far less interesting game.
David Rapp is the senior Indie editor.