- Francis Lawrence
- Run Time
- 2 hours and 37 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them.
But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.
Director Francis Lawrence takes us back again to The Hunger Games in this adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ novel. And I should emphasize back, in that the novel is a prequel, set 64 years before the events of The Hunger Games series. Although Coriolanus Snow is prominent in the story, he is a student at this time, when the 10th annual Hunger Games is about to be celebrated. Again, our protagonist is a female, the lead singer of a traveling group of musicians from District 12 who has been chosen as a tribute, the talented Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler). The film is divided into 3 parts that depict Snow’s social and political rise, accompanied by his moral fall in the 3rd part.
Coriolanus, played with likeable conviction by Tom Blyth, has been living in genteel poverty since the death of the Snow patriarch, Gen. Crassus Snow died during the First Rebellion of the Districts ten years earlier. The Games, in which each of the 12 Districts are required to send two “tributes” to the Capitol in Panem who are forced to fight to the death until only one is left alive and victorious—this being regarded as the eternal punishment for the Rebellion—have fallen onto hard times. The TV audiences have become bored with routine bloody fights, and so the viewership is down. Hunger Games director Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis) and her immediate underling Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage) assigns a class of academy seniors to mentor the new tributes. They hope that this mentoring will improve the skills of the combatants, and thus lure back the viewers.
Coriolanus greets the arrival of Lucy Gray with the gift of a white rose. She, of course, is hostile, but her suspicions begin to melt away when he pushes his way into the prison van taking the 24 tributes to their abode at the city zoo. Here they are dumped when the van’s bed is raised up at an angle and they land on the ground. Covering the tributes’ arrival is the host of the Hunger Games Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman, delightfully played by Jason Schwartzman. He adds a touch of morbid humor to the story. With his curlicue mustache he looks like Salvador Dali on steroids. In one scene he makes restaurant reservations while on screen tributes are dying—he’d be very much at home as a Nazi camp commandant in a Holocaust film. Anyway, Coriolanus and Lucy Gray are caught on camera, their brief interview generating the audience’s interest.
Coriolanus makes in writing several suggestions for the improvement of the Gaes, which are accepted. One of them is that a mentor can petition during the broadcast for the audience to send aid to a tribute, such as a bottle of water. These are accepted, but a fellow tribute, supposedly a friend of Coriolanus, takes credit for the suggestions. There is a substory of how her betrayal is suspected and dealt with in a novel but lethal way—hint, this involves the snakes of the film’s title.
There is plenty of action to keep fans of thrillers satisfied, and there is also the slow deterioration of Coriolanus’s moral fiber, plus a strong female protagonist that will hold the attention of those of us who enjoy cinematic character studies. The Games are interrupted early on, after just a few of the 24 tributes die amidst the fighting, when a series of bombs, planted by current members of the resistance, destroy much of the huge building where the Games are unfolding. Lucy Gray and a companion manage to take shelter in one of the service tunnels. Other tributes form into gangs, intent on hunting her down.
Lucy Gray has caught the attention of everyone by singing the haunting song “The Hanging Tree” at the beginning of the Games. Fans of the first three films will appreciate that the origin of the song that became an anthem for the rebels decades later is revealed in this film. Lucy Gray is present at the hanging of a man at which he calls out to his wife. Lucy’s response is to create the beautiful son with four verses and a refrains, “The Hanging Tree,” the lyrics of which have reminded some viewers of the song written to protest lynchings in America’s South, “Strange Fruit.” All four verses of the song begin with the question “Are you coming to the tree?” The last verse ends with the request, “Wear a necklace of hope side by side with me.”*
The cast is uniformly excellent in making us believe this dystopian tale. Viola Davis, with her wild hairdo, throws herself into the demonic head of the Games, Dr. Volumnia Gaul. Her dark view of human nature is revealed in the following exchange about the arena with Coriolanus:
Dr. Volumnia Gaul: “What happened in there? That’s humanity undressed. Filled with the terror of becoming prey. See how quickly we become predator? See how quickly civilization disappears?”
Coriolanus: “Those tributes don’t have a choice.”
Dr. Gaul:” I was talking about you. Oh your fine manners, education, background, stripped away in the blink of an `eye. Leaving a boy with a club who beats another boy to death to stay alive.”
Rachel Zegler and Tom Blyth may not capture our hearts as much as the stars in the original series, but they both do well as they draw closer to each other and then, when banished from the Capitol, become embroiled in tragic events. One of the latter involves Coriolanus’s faithful friend Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera), a wealthy member of the ruling class but who is troubled by the injustice of the Games. We feel badly for him and his sad fate, even as we wonder about Lucy Gray’s fate as she flees into the forest of District 12. Coriolanus manages to return to the Capitol where he ironically regains wealth, thanks to the parents of Sejanus who are ignorant that he stood by without attempting to aid his friends at the moment of his execution. As a protégé of Gaul, Coriolanus rises to power through murder and conniving, the film perhaps begging for a sequel in which we see more of the effects on a once decent young man of the thrusting aside of all morals and values.
*There is a thrilling version of “The Hanging Tree” on YouTube performed by a soloist, 100-member youth chorus and the Danish national Symphony. Lyrics here.
This review will be in the January issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.