Producers: Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson and Francis Lawrence  Director: Francis Lawrence   Screenplay: Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt   Cast: Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Peter Dinklage, Jason Schwartzman, Hunter Schafer, Josh Andrés Rivera, Viola Davis, Fionnula Flanagan, Burn Gorman, Ashley Liao, Zoe Renee, Max Raphael, Lily Cooper, Nick Benson, Mackenzie Lansing, Cooper Dillon, Sofia Sanchez, Hiroki Berrecloth, Jerome Lance, Dimitri Abold, Luna Steeples, Knox Bobbin, Irene Böhm and Kjell Brutscheidt   Distributor: Lionsgate

Grade: C

Before the Hunger Games, there was…an earlier version of the Hunger Games.  That, at least, is what we learn from this adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ 2020 YA novel “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes,” a prequel to her “Hunger Games” trilogy (2008-2010), which spawned a four-film franchise between 2012 and 2015.  Francis Lawrence, who directed the last three of them, returns for this installment, which explains how Coriolanus Snow, the nefarious President of Panem played by Donald Sutherland in the previous pictures starring Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, got to be the evil character he is by manipulating and altering the earlier games.  Just think of it as the “Hunger Games” equivalent of the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy about how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. Its pervasive gloom leaves you hungry for a glimmer of hopeful light.

Snow is here plated by Tom Blyth.  He’s the penniless son of an executed traitor struggling to rejuvenate the family fortunes by winning an annual scholarship from the various to the university and from there working his way up in the world.  Unfortunately, this year having the best grades isn’t enough, because the rules have been changed by Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), the inventor of the Games, and Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis), the chief gamemaker.  Now a final test will pair students graduating from the Academy with the game’s draftee participants (the so-called tributes from the various defeated districts) as mentors to gauge their strategic capabilities.  Snow is assigned Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), the female tribute from rustic District 12, who’s impetuous and reckless but also a thrilling singer.

The first of the three chapters into which the movie is divided, “The Mentor,” focuses on young Snow’s straitened circumstances with his cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer) and grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) and his attempts, once he overcomes his anger over the rule changes that threaten his winning the Plinth university scholarship, to build a bond with Lucy Gray that can shatter her friendship with Jessup (Nick Benson), the male tribute from her district whom she sees as her protector.  The cunning he exhibits in this impresses Gaul, who asks him for suggestions about making the games more exciting; viewership, it seems, has been down.

The second chapter, “The Prize,” is the actual contest, held not in outdoor zones (as in the “later” games, Snow’s eventual elaboration) but in a single dank cavern where the tributes aim to eliminate one another as efficiently as possible.  Lucy Gray becomes the prime target of an ad hoc gaggle of brutal competitors led by Coral (Mackenzie Lansing), the nasty female representative of District 4, and she loses the protection of Jessup, who falls victim to rabies.  Only the illegal intervention of Snow—who provides her with rat poison to kill off rivals and then arranges for a slew of poisonous snakes Gaul unleashes into the arena not to attack her—allows her to emerge victorious.  Unfortunately Highbottom discovers Coriolanus’ cheating and leaps at the chance to take his revenge, his hostility stemming from a betrayal he’d once suffered at the hands of Snow’s father.

Throughout these two segments a couple of other characters play fairly prominent roles.  One is “Lucky” Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman), the smarmy TV host of the event.  The other is Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera), Snow’s classmate.  The son of the wealthy, influential couple that sponsors the scholarship prize, he’s an idealist, hostile to the repressive policies behind the games, and his reaction to the execution of his rebellious tribute, and onetime friend, Marcus (Jerome Lance), leads him to a reckless act from which Snow must save him.

Sejanus is also an important player in the third and final chapter, “The Peacekeeper,” in which Snow is punished with a twenty-year stint as a regime soldier in District 12 for his illegal assistance to Lucy Gray in the games.  In a show of solidarity Sejanus volunteers for a similar tour of duty there.  But even as Snow reconnects with Lucy Gray, Sejanus again lets his idealistic streak get the better of him and Coriolanus is confronted with the choice about how to deal with his mistake.  Snow’s decision will not only determine his future, but seriously impact his relationship with Lucy Gray.

As should be clear from this, “The Ballad of the Songbirds & Snakes”—the unwieldy title is Collins’, to which “The Hunger Games” has been prefixed to remind audiences of the pedigree—is densely plotted, and at more than two-and-a-half hours it’s also overlong (though one may be gratified that at least the makers didn’t make its three chapters into three movies—after all, they transformed the final book of the trilogy into two films).  As a story it’s not very edifying, as there is no real hero here, mostly characters who are bad and worse, or, in the case of Coriolanus, turning to the dark side; Lucy Gray has a rambunctious streak, but she’s more a passive damsel-in-distress than Everdeen was (and her choices toward the close are ambiguous at best), and though Sejanus has good intentions, they’re secondary to his ineptitude.  It’s difficult to latch onto anybody to root for here.

But within the established parameters, both Blyth and Zegler fill their roles more than competently; Zegler’s singing is a particular adornment.  Others veer in the direction of unmitigated scenery-chewing.  That’s fine for Schwartzman, who’s meant to be ludicrously sleazy comic relief, or Lansing, who’s intended as a snarling foe, but it’s painful to watch Dinklage quaffing vial after vial of alcohol or drugs and staggering about before growling out his lines, or Davis, flouncing around in a grotesque fright wig, trying desperately to seem sinister and menacing.  It’s also a mite embarrassing to watch Flanagan playing potty, or Rivera trying to really act—ineffectually.

Nor is the film great visually.  Some of the images are rather chintzy, with almost humorously poor model work in Uli Hanisch’s production design and Adrian de Wet’s visual effects; and Trish Summerville’s costumes often come across as more outlandish than striking.  But Jo Willems’ widescreen cinematography is fine, if often very dank (especially in the first two chapters), and Lucy Gray’s songs, folksy protest numbers that set Collins’ lyrics to melodies by music producer Dave Cobb, are pleasant interruptions of James Newton Howard’s noisily take-no-prisoners score.  As for Mark Yoshikawa’s editing, it’s not his fault that the plot is overstuffed; he deals with the excess as best he can, though the arena action of Chapter Two feels grossly overextended.

This is a dour, depressing tale about an expanding dystopia, centered on a protagonist who’s learning how to prosper in a dog-eat-dog world.  What’s not to like?