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Review: The Hunger Games universe returns with an unexpected protagonist

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While you may prefer to forget the side braid and amateur archery phase of your adolescence, “The Hunger Games” universe is back on the big screen — and this time, audiences know the main character all too well.

“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” tells the story of a young Coriolanus Snow, better known in the original trilogy as President Snow, the enemy and persecutor of the heroic Katniss Everdeen. Before he became an evil tyrant, however, Snow was an underdog himself.

Set 64 years before the start of Katniss' story, “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” was originally written and released by Suzanne Collins in 2020. The prequel takes place amid the wreckage of the war between the Capitol and the districts. The story revolves around the 10th annual Hunger Games, revealing the precarious beginning stages of the twisted tradition.

As a student at the prestigious Capitol Academy, Snow is tasked with mentoring a tribute in the games, who is, of course, the girl from District 12, Lucy Gray Baird. Not unlike Katniss, Lucy Gray immediately wins the affection of onlookers for her headstrong nature — but also, random bouts of folk singing. 

Portrayed by Rachel Zegler, Lucy Gray is a character constructed to win the affection of audiences, both within Panem and beyond the fourth wall. However, her out-of-place Southern accent paired with a few too many singing scenes inch her toward a caricature, a too-sweet country girl forced to sacrifice herself.

Snow, on the other hand, is a fascinating protagonist. His cunning nature and unyielding ambition hint at his future as a wicked leader, while his questionable morals clash with his naivety and hidden good nature. 

Determined to restore postwar glory to his family, Snow forges a fast — perhaps a bit too much so — bond with Lucy Gray before she enters the games.

Actor Tom Blyth embodies Snow’s crooked charm, making it impossible to avoid empathizing with the franchise’s most notorious antagonist. Blyth’s Eminem-meets-Draco Malfoy look certainly doesn’t hurt Snow’s likability, either.

The budding relationship between Lucy Gray and Snow proves far more interesting than the action of the games. However, the lack of sophistication in the early years of the games makes the dystopian terror alarmingly realistic, as remnants of the world we live in now are still visible in the disheveled Panem. 

The humanizing backstory deepens Snow’s character, leaving audiences guessing as to how he becomes the despicable President Snow years later. Beyond his early acts of betrayal and arrogance, there is little evidence of true evil. If anything, you may leave the theater rooting for Snow in a strange way, far removed from Katniss and her story.

“The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is a gripping return to Panem, and the talented cast lights up a somewhat incomplete story about the terrible beginning of Collins’ well-known dystopia. (Writer's note: The real star of the show is Jason Schwartzman as talk-show host Lucretius "Lucky" Flickerman, the role we never knew he needed.)

But despite the nostalgia of returning to Collins’ creative hellscape, “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” falls short on its storytelling, ending the lengthy film with a rushed, incomplete ending. 

Though the film takes place in the famous fictional Panem, it fails to bridge the gap between the prequel and the rest of the franchise, instead serving as its own twisted tale that just so happens to echo traits of “The Hunger Games.”

@carly20

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com

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