How ‘Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ Reveals the Worth of the Human Person
Compared to the previous four films in the franchise, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes sagged in its opening weekend, bringing in a meager figure below $50 million at the American box office. Yet, with it, the entire Hunger Games franchise overshot $3 billion in the global box office. It touched the hearts of audiences and had teenage girls admiring how attractive young Coriolanus was.
It garnered mixed reviews from critics, with some calling it “good,” and others “bad.” I would venture to say it was actually both. Spoiler alert ahead.
A Break-Down of “Ballad”
Ballad, the prequel to both the movie series and Suzanne Collins’s original trilogy of novels, follows an ambitious Coriolanus Snow who learns the lessons of self-preservation from Dr. Volumina Gaul. Gaul, the mad scientist and inaugural Gamemaker, possesses a personality that exudes domination, disinformation, and sadism. She eliminates anyone who becomes problematic to her plans.
The film also follows Coriolanus’s love interest, Lucy Gray, whom he meets as she is brought in as tribute from District 12. What begins as a mutual love for the sake of utility starts (or so it seems) to evolve into a deeper admiration. Ultimately, Ballad is the story of Snow’s rejection of love and acceptance of Dr. Gaul’s idea of living for oneself alone. In the end, he gets what he set out to obtain, but he is left an island unto himself.
Good Versus Evil
Above, I mentioned that The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is both good and bad. It’s a movie that shows both of these aspects of reality: the good and the bad, truth and falsehood, heroism and fear. It’s all there. And, unlike many movies made over the past few decades, the lines of good and evil are pretty well defined.
The British columnist G.K. Chesterton once quipped, “Right is right, even if nobody does it. Wrong is wrong, even if everybody is wrong about it.” This speaks to the reality that, regardless of opinion, there is something that is right and something that is wrong. Morality is a tangible veracity. If it escapes our attention or belief it does not cease to exist.
That’s what we see in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. People like Lucy Gray, Sejanus Plinth, and Snow’s cousin Tigris show him that the point of life is love, not dominion. They uphold the human dignity of the so-called “tributes,” caring for them, realizing just how wrong this blood sport is.
The viewer sympathizes with the tributes and with the unsung underdogs of the Capitol who don’t wish to see innocent people barbarically kill each other. When, for example, Coriolanus is beating a child several years younger than himself, the audience sees the change in him: Coriolanus could have stopped after a blow or two. Instead, he bludgeons the kid to death. It’s not a pleasant thing, and it’s not meant to be. There is a distinct point of decision, on Snow’s part, when he chooses to kill the child attacking him. Later, he says how exhilarating this made him feel.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have the start of our villain. And unlike teenage girls, I don’t think he’s so likable.
A Bloody Spectacle
The wealthy and the officials of Panem, and the games themselves, are very evocative of ancient Rome. Caesar, Claudius, Seneca…the given names of a few prominent characters in The Hunger Games (2012) are all pulled straight from Roman antiquity.
While there are a slew of misconceptions about the ancient vomitorium, it is known that many of the Roman emperors who gorged themselves underwent forced vomiting between meals. Similar decadence is seen in the exotic foods available to Panem society and the beverage they drink which makes them regurgitate an excess of food.
The ruthless Hunger Games harken back to Roman amusements such as executions and gladiator brawls in the Colosseum and other amphitheaters. Spectators knew they would see someone die before they left the stadium, and that’s what goes on in the Hunger Games.
Characters like Sejanus see the Games as a great injustice. He despises them. These are the sentiments of the movie viewers too. What is done to these poor children is unjust. It’s an injustice because no matter who they are – sick or healthy, a black man or a girl with Down syndrome – they are people like you and me. They have dignity, and no one can rob them of that.
However, it is ironic that it takes a violent movie to illustrate the evils of violence today. Perhaps there is no other way. I doubt it would have made it as an action movie without the violence.
Science, Superstition, and Sound Mindedness
In 1984, George Orwell wrote:
“The scientist of today is either a mixture of psychologist and inquisitor, studying with extraordinary minuteness the meaning of facial expressions, gestures, and tones of voice, and testing the truth-producing effects of drugs, shock therapy, hypnosis, and physical torture; or he is a chemist, physicist, or biologist concerned only with such branches of his special subject as are relevant to the taking of life.”
That’s Dr. Volumina Gaul in a nutshell. She sniffs out the truth when people are lying to her and she, in turn, lies to the public to keep herself in good standing. Nothing could be worse than looking bad in front of the people of Panem.
Besides her numerous instances of cruelty, Dr. Gaul also knows how to coerce those around her into doing her bidding. She knows what Snow wants, and she uses that to her advantage. For example, the 10th Annual Hunger Games are televised. But when it’s discovered that Sejanus willingly though secretly entered the arena at night, Gaul shuts off the cameras and convinces Snow to bring his friend back out.
Sejanus kneels beside his friend who had been executed earlier that day in the Games. Gaul scoffs at this, dismissing it as some superstitious ritual. But it’s a ritual that looks an awful lot like praying. Gaul is a woman of sadistic science, like the dystopian scientist envisioned by Orwell, who has no room for charity and belief in life after death. Sejanus believes otherwise. In fact, he is ultimately the martyr of believing that he can and should pursue the good, even though it goes against the grain. Right is still right, even if nobody does it.
Sejanus, though he pays the ultimate price, is at peace with himself. He is true to himself, stands up for what is right, and speaks out against what is wrong. Snow, while he seems externally triumphant by the climax of the story, will never experience true love or friendship again. He chose his path, but it’s not one that leads to a sound mind.
He and upper-class Panem society will have to reckon with their decisions. Their halcyon days are a sort of “pax Romana” built upon cruelty and authoritarianism. And if we know our history, we know no nation lasts forever. Wrong is wrong, even if everybody is wrong about it.