In a blockbuster landscape littered with unnecessary sequels, prequels and reboots, you’d be forgiven for wondering why on Earth we’re returning to the world of The Hunger Games eight years after the series reached its big-screen conclusion.
“We felt like we’d got away with making something truly subversive”, producer Nina Jacobson reflected to Zavvi. “A thoughtful, provocative movie that still entertained audiences, without compromising on the thematic punch it packs.
“But that story was done – we were ready to work on other things, and so was Suzanne (Collins, author). We were never contemplating making another one until we got a cryptic call from her at the end of 2019, saying she’d written another book, it had music in it, was set 64 years earlier, and only featured two characters readers would recognise.”
The stand-alone prequel The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes was an immediate bestseller upon release in 2020, and the prequel charting Coriolanus Snow’s formative years – an origin story for the tyrannical dictator he’d eventually become – struck a chord with many. Not least because, in an era when every new franchise instalment is designed to set up several more, this story is a complete one, fleshing out post-war Panem further without teasing a single sequel.
This is because Jacobson and returning director Francis Lawrence don’t want to make anything that hasn’t come from Collins herself: if she hasn’t written any more books for them to adapt, they have no interest in telling any more stories in this world. She’s also one of the pair’s favourite collaborators to work with, giving them the space to put their own distinctive stamp on her stories.
As Jacobson put it: “Suzanne is the North Star, and she’s very involved in the script process with us, going page-by-page every day until that final draft. But she’s a great partner because she’s not precious, she doesn’t want a slavish adaptation; as long as the core ideas and characterisations are preserved, she’s happy for us to try something new, especially once production starts and she gives us the freedom to do our own thing – she knows that’s how we do our best work.”
However, whilst Jacobson is right to say she’d never expected to make another one after Mockingjay Part II, it wasn’t due to a lack of curiosity about the wider world Collins’ books hinted at.
As Lawrence told Zavvi: “Nina and I often used to chat about what we’d make if we were asked to make more, and those conversations were always about those dark post-war days, and the origins of the games. But it wouldn’t work if it didn’t come from Suzanne, and back in 2015, she’d spent an entire decade of her life on these books and the movie adaptations – which I think is why it was so exciting to get the call a few years after that, to hear that she was wanting to return to this world.”
For those unfamiliar with the lore of the Hunger Games, the prequel is set a decade after a destructive war in which the impoverished districts of Panem rose up against the wealthy Capitol. They failed, and now to reassert their societal dominance, keep their “enemies” in place by randomly selecting two children from each district to fight to the death in a gladiatorial combat, proving their innate cruelty in the hope of stopping another attempted uprising.
The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes takes place during the 10th annual games, after viewing figures are down because of people outraged at the mindless cruelty. Games creator Cas Highbottom (Peter Dinklage) aims to innovate this by assigning each contestant a “mentor” from the Capitol for the first time, with the 18-year-old Snow paired with Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), an outspoken country musician from the run-down District 12.
Sensing he has a winner on his hands, he pitches that the Games transform into a reality show, for viewers to get to know the contestants more – inspiring more to tune in to see if they’ll survive. And thus, the Games as we know them in the main film series are born.
Snow’s relationship with the revolutionary Lucy drives the film’s tension. Much like the Star Wars prequels, it asks viewers to believe that, in what is unambiguously a villain’s origin story, he could still take a more heroic path.
As Lawrence explained: “Everybody knows this character is going to be a villain, and where this story is going to end up. Part of the joy of those kinds of stories is the surprising route that we take somebody on; can we get an audience to get behind him in the beginning, hoping that he won’t get sent straight into the darkness?
“Part of the challenge of this adaptation was threading the needle between getting an audience empathising with and rooting for him, whilst also maintaining the ambition, and need for power within him, so it would be believable when he goes dark. That’s the biggest trick I tried to pull with the movie.”
In a cast made up of several familiar faces, with Viola Davis and Jason Schwartzman entering in scene-stealing supporting roles, the young Snow is played by a relative unknown: Tom Blyth, a young actor from Nottingham whose only blockbuster role to date has been playing a “feral child” in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood.
The team saw thousands of actors for this coveted part, but Lawrence said Blyth stood out immediately.
He explained: “He came in very late in the game, we had seen a lot of people. But when he came in, we instantly knew this was the guy – this was partly physical, as he had the big blue eyes and I could see him ageing into Donald Sutherland, but he also a sense of intelligence and sophistication that was important for the role.
“And this was all before we saw his audition. After that, it was the easiest, most obvious choice.”
Opposite him is Zegler, the breakout star of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, here tasked with another heavily musical role – albeit one written with far different influences, as the character has been crafted in the vein of several real country music icons.
“We talked about different things throughout developing the character, but the main thing we came back to is the sound of this music. It sounds like it comes out of that West Virginia Appalachian Mountains or coal mining town zone.
“So we’d be looking back to people like Maybelle Carter, and specifically the type of guitar she used to play, which was always a little too big for her. And we also talked about Loretta Lynn, and Sissy Spacek’s performance as her in Coal Miner’s Daughter, to try and hone down the dialect of this character.
“And then we of course talked about Dolly Parton, and her effervescence, irreverence and charm. Music is an important factor in this story without it becoming a musical, but it’s certainly what helped make this story feel fresh, and not just like we were doing a retread of the previous films.”
Another thing that stands out is the striking retro-futuristic production design, with this era of Panem appearing in stark contrast to the cutting-edge look of the Capitol in the prior movies.
“We were talking a lot about Reconstruction Era Berlin in the 1950s, how they rebuilt following a war, whilst there was still rubble on the streets. This was also where we had long conversations with Suzanne about how rudimentary the technology needed to be; the arena needed to look more simple, and even the wardrobe and automobile design needed to feel more basic, less lavish – that time period was really helpful in finding that look.”
The games this times are confined to a small, indoor arena and the tunnels surrounding it. But make no mistake, it’s still a brutal watch, pushing the 12A rating to its breaking point, even whilst making a point of refusing to linger on the violence, so we don’t turn into the same gawping spectators in the Capitol.
“I will say that, in every one of these movies I’ve made, the first cut has always got an R-rating”, Lawrence said. “But I always approach the violence not in terms of its physicality, but its emotional impact, you want the audience to feel its intensity, which you don’t need to linger on the gore to do.
“But this does still lead to wild questions in production about what we can safely depict in a PG-13, like how long can you hold on to a shot of someone getting stabbed, or what sound are you allowed to use when someone’s falling from a decent height.”
With Collins not currently working on a new Hunger Games novel, everybody involved with the production is well aware this could be the final movie. Lawrence would be sad, but not disappointed, by this.
He concluded: “Part of what always intrigues me is that Suzanne writes based on theme first, to ensure each story has a relevance and reason to exist. I know fans want to see Haymitch or Finnick prequel stories, but she’s like me: she knows that would feel like an empty cash-in if it doesn’t start without a thematic idea – all of these movies start from Suzanne.”
So get ready for your next trip to Panem: it could be your last.
The Hunger Games: Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes is released in UK cinemas on Friday, 17th November.