“It’s inherently very different from the other books,” states producer Nina Jacobson. We’re talking to her about Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, the latest movie in the Hunger Games franchise, based on the book by Suzanne Collins.
“Thematically the other books are about the consequences of violence,” she continues. “This movie comes from a very different place thematically. It’s remarkable how much [Collins] takes these deep ideas about how we see our fellow human very much shapes the kind of government we think we need.
“If you think people are inherently brutal and prone to destroy each other, you want a government that will protect you from those rotten human instincts. If you’re more of a person who thinks that people are fundamentally good, then you want to protect your rights. Your individuality, your liberties, to let people be good. And different characters in the story represent different ideas. So we felt like, thematically, we had all new material to play with.”
“It definitely feels like a Hunger Games movie,” agrees the movie’s director, Francis Lawrence, who’s been on board with the movies since Hunger Games: Catching Fire, “but it’s not just a rehash. It feels like something really fresh. really new.
“It’s a completely different narrative – it’s not a survival story. It’s the origin story of a villain. It’s an origin story of the entire world that fans are familiar with. The origin of the Games, the origin of certain behaviours, the origins of the songs we know. Those were all the things that I fell in love with.”
Set around 64 years before we meet Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes tells the story from a familiar character’s point of view: Coriolanus Snow (played by Tom Blyth in this movie and originally played by Donald Sutherland).
However, this is long before Snow becomes the tyrannical president of Panem and is a young man struggling to make his mark in the Capital. To do that, he gets involved in the Games, which is an idea still in its infancy.
“Obviously, we’re telling this story from the point of view, not just of the person we all have learned to hate over the last four movies, but also from a Capital point of view,” Jacobson explains. “The Capital is explored in a way we have never really gotten to see yet. Then you have it as a period movie, that takes place 64 years earlier. It’s not as high-tech as the Games that we’ve seen. And you have Lucy Gray, this incredible character who’s so different than any character we’ve seen in these books or movies. And she sings!”
Indeed, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes introduces us to a whole slew of new characters, including Lucy Gray Baird (played by who is Rachel Zegler) – a Tribute from the impoverished District 12 who is to take part in the 10th Hunger Games. Snow has been selected to be her Mentor and though the spectacle of the Games isn’t quite yet established at this point in Panem’s history, Lucy Gray and Snow are quick to realise that Gray’s musical talents resonate with the Games’ audience, and they focus on that to help her.
Though The Hunger Games movies are no strangers to music numbers (who can forget Jennifer Lawrence’s mournful rendition of ‘The Hanging Tree’ in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1?), The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes takes its musical influences a lot further, with many more original numbers performed by Zegler.
When it came to shooting those musical numbers, director Francis Lawrence focused on “the narrative and how to interweave music, while continuing to tell the story, and to think about the tone of the music for the film,” he says. “But it was really fun. That’s one of the things that I found really unique about this new take that Suzanne had on the story.”
It’s been 25 years since author Suzanne Collins wrote and released the first Hunger Games book, and she’s been involved in their adaptations since the first movie was released back in 2012. The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes book was published in 2020 and she was still writing the novel when she reached out to Lawrence to discuss its adaptation.
“She’s very involved in the adaptation process,” he nods. “How it’s worked since I started on Catching Fire is that I fly to New York and she and I go through the book, and figure out what we think the outline of the story is for the movie, and we hand that off to the screenwriters. Then we all work together on the adaptation process. So she was very involved. We did the outlining process and worked on the script for close to two years, together with Nina [for Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes].”
Though The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is the longest book in the series, fans of the novel shouldn’t be worried that the movie deviates from it too much: “I would say it’s a pretty faithful adaptation,” affirms Jacobson. “They all have been. The biggest issue was compressing it because we did not want a crazy long movie! Suzanne writes from theme, she writes from character. She’s a real structuralist as a writer, so literally the book is in three acts. So we knew what those acts would be. We follow those acts.”
Jacobson has worked on the Hunger Games movies since the very first one and she tells us that coming back to the franchise was both joyful (“we had an amazing time making these movies together!”) but also “intimidating because you don’t want people to feel that you’ve worn out your welcome.
“Suzanne writes from a very pure place,” she continues. “She had themes and ideas she wanted to explore. Characters she wanted to delve into who I think have lived in her mind for a long time. But there’s always the fear that audiences, their response at first will be like ‘oh, it’s just a money grab’.
“We wouldn’t have made another movie had she not given us an amazing book to adapt. So that was also nerve-wracking. How would people receive it knowing that we’re going to make a Hunger Games movie that doesn’t have Katniss Everdeen at the centre of it?”
“It’s interesting,” adds Lawrence. “I think you could have new fans who have not read any of the books, not seen any of the movies, and they can come in and watch this and enjoy it. But if you’ve seen the other movies and books, there’s another layer that’s going to be really fun here, because you’re going to get the easter eggs and the origins of things that you already know. It’s going to change your mind about certain characters and relationships.
“But I’m also really interested for people who are new to almost start with this and then be informed in a different way going into the first films.”
To date, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is the last novel by Suzanne Collins in the Hunger Games franchise – so if audiences want more from the world of Panem, would the filmmakers ever be tempted to deviate away from the books?
“If Suzanne writes something, I’ll be the first to want to jump in again,” explains Jacobson. “We follow her lead and she entrusted me with these books pretty early in my producing career. I’m never going to want to be outside of her guidance. Her guidance is everything to these adaptations. So, if she writes something else, or if there’s a story she wants to tell, or she wants us to tell, then sign me up.
“But at this moment, there are no plans. This, at this moment, is a standalone movie. I think audiences appreciate that too. You know, not everything has to be a cinematic universe!”
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes will be in cinemas on 17 November 2023.