The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes review: Hunger Games prequel's darkly funny, way too long
Suzanne Collins twists her dystopian saga into a devilish, confounding origin story.
A portrait of the tyrant as a young hustler, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes begins with a poor little rich boy gagging down a fistful of cabbage. Coriolanus Snow lives a life as grand as his imperial name and as vulgar as that name's climactic syllables. The 18-year-old heir presents a dynastic façade, residing in the Capitol’s most opulent apartment building. His blond curls are perfect. He writes such beautiful essays.
Appearances deceive. The Snows are penthouse poor. Ten years ago, rebellion besieged their city and left Coriolanus an orphan. His grandmother kept him alive on a lima bean diet, and they got through winter burning books for warmth. Now, high society doesn’t know they inhabit a fabulous ruin: 20-foot walls cracked open, black tape on the windows. The preening old matriarch tends her roses, while Coriolanus’ cousin Tigris scams fancy clothes from her boozy fashion boss. The war didn’t get them; the property tax will. Continued status depends on Coriolanus attending the University he can’t afford. Their only hope is a good showing for his final Academy project: Mentorship in the ratty, low-budget circus of death known as the Hunger Games.
Suzanne Collins bled out her Hunger Games trilogy so fast, releasing three parts annually in three recessionary summers. The author had a parent-friendly Nickelodeon résumé, but the 2008 original novel obliterated what was left of the Young Adult genre’s sanitized reputation. Her kid-kill parable was its own literary bonfire, half media satire, half dog-eat thrill ride, sparkling with generational rage and class-conscious revolutionary spirit.
President Coriolanus Snow was the series' distant villain, a venomous old face stretched plastic by big screens and future Botox. He only really interacted with heroic Katniss Everdeen a few times — yet they were linked by some unfathomable connection, even sharing the same headache above their left eyebrows. "I’m afraid we have both been played for fools," he told her near the end of 2010’s brilliantly demolishing Mockingjay. That concluding volume reduced Katniss to a well-intentioned sap, her valor cultivated into propaganda for the year’s hottest new dictator. The breathtaking cynicism was the opposite of fan service — iconic beloveds kept dying pointlessly —and I know people who hated the book. Mockingjay became two bland movies, and it took a decade for Collins to publish another proper novel. Did she need years to recover? I did.
With The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, the author returns to Snow's youth with a song in her heart and acid in her veins. The prequel is stranger than its predecessors, and funnier, overlong, dangerously goofy. It grasps shamelessly for social meaning and conjures a vampiric spell. The tone sets on the epigraph page, which quotes Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Wordsworth, and Mary Shelley. Cool! Also: Too much! At worst, what follows is an undigested lesson plan for the whole Hunger Games idea, clashing exposition with familiar story beats. At best, it table-flips the trilogy's striving into an anti-morality tale of consuming ambition: Mr. Ripley Goes to Washington.
Young Coriolanus is an unabashed elitist, sensitive to the undercurrents of power. The opening chapters draw you into his fake-it-till-you-make-it illusions. Katniss was a visceral creature of nature, narrating her confusing adventures in present tense first-person. Ballad’s third-person past fits Coriolanus’ intellectual courtly existence, all fake smiles and knowing banter with addled professors.
Sixty-four years before Katniss entered her high-tech Arena, the Hunger Games is a not-ready-for-primetime bore, staged in a brokedown old stadium. Coriolanus and his fellow students get matched with Tributes from the Districts. They're also creative consultants. The event must be eventized; this murder bowl needs some zhuzhing. "Everyone agreed that if the Hunger Games were to continue," Collins writes, "they needed to evolve into a more meaningful experience." It’s executive vocab in the gladiator pit. You just know Collins took meetings in Hollywood where some suit repeated the phrase more meaningful experience.
Enter Lucy Gray Baird, District 12’s newest sacrificial Tribute. She’s a starving no-hoper who presents minimal physical threat, and Coriolanus assumes (rightly) that his pairing with her is some kind of punishment. It’s also an opportunity. Lucy Gray is a performer — the book’s awful title is a warning about all her songs — and the ravenous Capitol media machine needs a star. Their dynamic resembles the central coupling of a pop music biography: The shaggily authentic performer from back-alley nowhere, the shady impresario sanding hard edges into gold.
Lucy Gray has a complicated relationship with Coriolanus, and she's a mysterious character for reasons that don’t quite pay off. You already sense one big prequel problem: Another Hunger Games with another District 12 girl who also becomes a fan-favorite with another distinctive style of clothing? The narrative never really leaves Coriolanus’ side, which strands the reader on the threshold of Lucy Gray's action. The original trilogy always had a light meta quality, characters on camera balancing interior desires with winning the crowd. Some key moments in Ballad take place while people sit in a room watching TV and tapping their computers. Who wants a second-screen novel?
Coriolanus has a more intriguing double act with his fellow student Sejanus Plinth, the son of an upjumped District 2 tycoon. He's a new-money dreamer with a rebellious spirit who doesn’t belong in the Capitol, and doesn’t care to. "What a waste of a dynasty," Coriolanus thinks — and a lot of the book's first half exudes that line's tone of withering vexation. The lonely idealist is an opportunity for the fading aristocrat hunting a big score, and Coriolanus navigates closer to Sejanus with mirthful, merciless charm.
Coriolanus, Sejanus, and did I mention Dean Highbottom? You feel we’re disappearing up someplace. The names are ridiculous — Persephone Price, Satyria Click, Domitia Whimsiwick, Lysistrata Vickers — which could be the point. The first and best act of Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes carves into an amoral world of preening wealth and corrosive power. Collins describes food and fashion with a primal awe that captures Coriolanus’ starving good taste, and she turns the postwar Capitol into a social arena. "Self-medication was a citywide epidemic," she writes, and all the adults really are on something, the rich doped up on Morphling, the poor drowning in bathtub moonshine. It’s the emotional hellscape of a dying Empire. Think Ancient Rome, or go look outside your quarantine window. Coriolanus’ motivations are desperately palpable: Save the family, keep the nice apartment, never go hungry again.
The storytelling itself trends desperate at times. Chapters close on violent cliffhangers that edge into parody: "Then the world exploded." Was there a concern that hardcore-action readers would get bored with posh baby fascists Gossip Girling around a murder-y prep school? There's also a limp secondary antagonist, a mad scientist named Dr. Gaul, who operates a laboratory full of helpful twists and offers dull lectures about "mankind in its natural state."
Dr. Gaul proves those opening epigraphs weren’t messing around. In the acknowledgments, the writer thanks her father for teaching her "about the Enlightenment thinkers and the state of nature debate from an early age," so that's one new parenting goal for this new parent. I admire the ambitions, but all the explicit philosophy reflects another prequel problem: the urge to explain what was once so vividly felt. The expository impulse brings momentum to a halt. With bloody betrayal spiraling all around, Dr. Gaul demands Coriolanus write an essay about chaos.
Ballad runs over 500 pages, and at one point it almost seems to become a different novel. There are too many folk music interludes, some ludicrous franchise callbacks, and a genuinely awe-inspiring final setpiece. At its core lies a tantalizing question: Was this saga's great antagonist a monster — or was he "someone who tried really hard to be noble in impossible circumstances"? Collins still has a gift for horrorshow scene-setting, and there's a renewed political edge: Kids in cages, a notable use of the word "classy," and pay attention to any calendar references.
On the level of pure pulp, this book may satisfy any readers who want their Hunger Games to have, well, Hunger Games. Gone is Catching Fire’s All-Star teamwork and Mockingjay’s the-city-is-the-arena sidestep. Here, again, is a no-escape duel of nasty brutishness, with violence only abated by the antics of a parrot in the commentary booth. A parrot! Collins can be funny, man, like Coen Brothers funny. In a flashback to resource-depleted wartime, Coriolanus recalls seeing "a titan in the railroad industry" saw off a dead maid’s leg, and not for decoration. Ballad is a major work with major flaws, but it sure gives you a lot to chew on. Grade: B-
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The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes