The Hunger Games, which came out over a decade ago in 2008, has since spawned two sequels, four films, and a hell of a lot of fan fever. It was immediately heralded as a modern classic, receiving numerous awards and honours (such as California’s Young Medal Award). Despite its post-apocalyptic, outlandishly dystopian backdrop, The Hunger Games series remains culturally relevant and bleakly unique subject matter.
Understandably, following up on something so hyped is going to be a challenge. When I heard there’d be a prequel, I was ecstatic. I thought of my favourite characters, the endless fascinating side characters, backstories—all aspects of the world Suzanne Collins created with such depth and nuance there was no way, in my mind, that she couldn’t live up to her legacy.
I’m saddened to say that The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes simply missed the mark. When I learned the prequel would focus on the ultimate tyrant, President Coriolanus Snow, when he was younger, I had to remind myself that this could be interesting. But I won’t lie—I was disheartened. Of all the characters within the trilogy to focus on, Corolanius, in my opinion, was a weak choice. We knew plenty about Snow from the original series, and to me, a near 500-page follow-up felt unjustified. Suzanne Collins took pains to create The Hunger Games world. The overarching message that goodness prevails and that characters suffering from hardship, including minorities and the voiceless, have the chance—through suffering—to come out on top. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes protagonist choice, then, feels like a contradictory message. Did we really need to give a platform to a man who caused such destruction?
Villain origin stories are doing pretty well in popular culture at the moment. With the new Emma Stone film Cruella out this month, it’s a reminder that there have been some fantastic examples of engaging, thrilling, and empathetic portrayals of famous antagonists over the years-Maleficent, Joker, Wicked. If this was trying to fill that quota, I’m disappointed to say it fell flat. Not only did it feel like it was carrying on the back of better known, more successful villain origin stories, it just didn’t work.
In The Hunger Games, Coriolanus Snow is conniving, calculated, and smart. Granted, he’s had some fifty years to wisen up; the prequel Snow, at just 18-years-old, is a passive and unengaging protagonist. Set during the 10th Hunger Games (remember that the first THG takes place during the 74th Hunger Games), Coriolanus is assigned as mentor to District 12 tribute, Lucy Gray. From the very beginning, Coriolanus is spineless, and not in a classically evil way. He comes across as meek, and self-pitying, as he reminds readers of his orphanhood and struggles to uphold the Snow name in the Capitol. From there, things only get worse. Rarely is he proactive, often forced into situations without any agency, but ultimately coming out better for it (‘Snow always lands on top’ being the overused catchphrase of the book). Readers aren’t satisfied with a clear, concise character arc, nor a slow descent into corruption. In fact, Coriolanus is a stagnant character, whose eventual ‘fall from grace’ felt forced and rushed. His character relies heavily on what readers know of who he becomes, for us to fill in the gaps in an otherwise two-dimensional characterisation.
The aspects of this novel that really shone for me were the nuggets of history and development of the country of Panem. We were offered an insight into the early days of the Hunger Games when Game Masters were still ironing out the kinks, the game itself was still being played in a dilapidated Arena, the Capitol wasn’t nearly as opulent as we know it to be. Major aspects of the game-such as sending tributes gifts from sponsors-are only just being developed. Mockingjays are being discovered and named for the first time. This was, to a longtime fan, very cool. I was fascinated by the anti-rebellion conversations being had by the other side-that is to say, Capitol kids and people in positions of power. It was a great insight into how easily people can be compliant to such horrors when one’s self-preservation kicks in, a key theme in the original series.
Having said that, there were more lazy attempts at referencing fandom iconography than there was original and believable development of the world of Panem. At times it reminded me of poor fan theories, giving Coriolanus credit for a number of key aspects of the The Hunger Games without much thought or care, and because it was convenient. For example, his unexplained hate for Mockingjays, his idea to place bets on tributes and garner sponsorship from wealthy Capitol civilians. We learned the origin of the famous Hanging Tree song came from Coriolanus’ sweetheart, which was almost as trite as the presence of the romance itself.
Coriolanus’ relationship with tribute Lucy Gray was perhaps the most unbearable aspect of the novel. I spent a lot of time after finishing the book wondering whether this flaw was intentional, particularly knowing the fate of Lucy Gray and how it instigates Coriolanus’ downward spiral. I came to the conclusion that I think the artificial feel of the romance was a deliberate ploy by Collins to demonstrate Coriolanus’ heartlessness. Their chemistry was nonexistent because he simply wasn’t capable of warmth. Regardless of the motive, it wasn’t entertaining to read and had me cringing. Their romantic side plot was forced and just didn’t add anything to the story. Its presence added to the already unfocused, meandering pace of the plot. Considering Collins is capable of such enigmatic and fascinating women characters, Lucy Gray and what she represented was completely disappointing. In the end, she was merely a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, lacking any real substance.
I will give Collins credit for re-sparking my love for the original THG series, causing me to binge-watch the films over a weekend, and consider picking up the books again (only to ultimately not, because I have too many unread books to focus on). But as for The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes? I won’t be rereading anytime soon.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
By Suzanne Collins
517 pages. 2020.