The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes does an impressive job of unraveling a villain

Donald Sutherland (“President Snow”) stars in Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE. Photo Credit: Murray Close/Lionsgate
Donald Sutherland (“President Snow”) stars in Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE. Photo Credit: Murray Close/Lionsgate /

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes masterfully unravels the villain of The Hunger Games, all while tying itself into the original story.

The news that Suzanne Collins’ prequel to The Hunger Games would focus primarily on the original trilogy’s villain, Coriolanus Snow, was met with mixed feelings from fans. Some worried The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes would paint Snow as a tragic hero, attempting to erase his later crimes. Others were excited to see how Collins would tackle this character’s story, particularly knowing what he turns into by the time we meet Katniss Everdeen.

Well, we have good news to report: Collins does a masterful job, both of unraveling a villain without redeeming him and of tying her prequel into her previous works.

Although the book does open with Snow as a pitiful character just trying to survive after the war, the narrative repeatedly goes out of its way to remind fans of one truth: Everything Snow does, even the things that can be perceived as good, are with self-interest in mind. That said, it wouldn’t be a successful novel without giving the protagonist enough humanity to keep readers engaged. But whatever positive qualities Snow starts the book with are long gone by the time fans reach the story’s jaw-dropping conclusion.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though. Let’s start with the basics: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes opens with Snow living with his grandmother and cousin Tigris (yes, that Tigris from Mockingjay), hardly able to afford food or pay for their minimal living space. The family has lived through the war with the rebels, and both citizens in the Capitol and in the districts are suffering the aftermath.

Of course, what the Capitol considers suffering is largely preferable to what the Districts endure — and Collins doesn’t let us forget it for a second, particularly once the tributes for the 10th Hunger Games are brought in.

And if Snow hopes to attend University next year — or even remain living in his apartment — he’ll have to successfully mentor one of the tributes and make enough of an impression on his teachers and the Gamemakers to rise in the ranks. That’s made much more difficult when he’s assigned the girl tribute from District 12 — normally, someone most viewers would consider a goner without a second thought.

But Lucy Gray proves that she’s both interesting and a genuine contender in the Games — that is, if Snow can help make them less about brute force and more about skill and popularity. And thus begins a new approach to the games that adds some interesting layers to the world we see in the later books.

The Games

Part of what’s so fascinating about Collins’ prequel is going back in time and seeing what the Hunger Games were like when they were first conceived. After seeing the massive, intricately designed arenas and thorough training tributes endure prior to being thrown into them, it’ll surprise most readers to see just how different the Games were all those years ago.

For one, Capitol citizens and those in the districts weren’t forced to watch the event — and many didn’t. That jump toward inhumanity comes later, making sense of the fact that some people in the Capitol are actually sympathetic toward the districts, even during Katniss’ time.

More horrifying is the fact that there seemed to be no rules back then, with tributes often starving to death before the Games even began. It’s fascinating — and unnerving — to see how much of an influence Snow had on the Games fans already know, suggesting everything from making it a mandatory viewing event to allowing outsiders to place bets on the Games and send tributes gifts.

The Message

Despite following one of the most immoral characters of the entire story, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes does leave viewers with a few solid messages about the dangers of dehumanizing other people, and about consistently failing to defend what’s right. That seems to be the point of contrasting what the Hunger Games was with what it became, as well as highlighting Snow’s relationship with Lucy — who he doesn’t consider “scum” like the other people from the Districts, simply on the basis that he’s gotten to know her.

Admittedly, it would have been nice to have a few chapters from Lucy’s perspective sprinkled in, to see what the tributes were enduring, and to see how the Games affected her before and after. There’s no denying this book could have been more powerful from a POV more similar to Katniss’, but seeing the other side of the coin did have its interesting moments.

Sejanus also serves as a foil to Snow, showcasing what genuine compassion looks against Snow’s self-centered approach to life, and he’s a refreshing addition to an otherwise grim cast of characters. (Let’s be honest, Sejanus and Lucy steal the show here.) Again, a chapter or two in Sejanus’ head would have benefited this book a lot, but Collins does do a solid job of conveying what he’s thinking regardless of who’s POV we’re reading from.

Disappointing Conclusion

While The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes has some important messages to offer, the final third of the book is a bit disappointing overall. The pacing drags once Snow is forced into life as a Peacekeeper, and some of the biggest moments in the book happen in just a page or two.

Although readers are expecting Snow’s descent, it happens entirely too quickly, with his thought processes wildly jumping all over the place for the last few chapters of the book. Even his fallout with Lucy could have been more drawn out and satisfying. Instead, she realizes what he is and disappears, with his feelings about her changing almost instantaneously.

As for the very end, well … it’s a doozy. There’s no doubt there’s some excitement to be had in seeing how quickly Snow unravels and becomes a villain, but one can’t help but wonder if the entire third section of the book should have been more focused on that.

(Plus, we get it, Snow really hates Mockingjays — and one in particular.)

Next. 5 reasons The Hunger Games remains one of the best YA series. dark

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is available in print, ebook, and audiobook format.