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The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Thoughts on What to Expect from the Film This Fall
We are still several months out from the Thanksgiving release of the film adaptation of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Suzanne Collins’s brilliant prequel to the Hunger Games trilogy. Just like the Capitol, though, using special programs and events like the Victory Tour to be sure the Districts never forget the Hunger Games in the year between the contests, the Hollywood Gamemakers are eagerly producing media to get audiences ramped up for the new film. No doubt, we’ll be subjected to branded cosmetics, fast-food value meals, and other poor-taste marketing tools. After the commercial success of the four films adapted from the original Hunger Games Trilogy, it was not a question of if, but of when, the 2020 prequel would be sent to the screen. Ironically, the Hollywood promo machine has never seemed to catch on to the fact that Collins is brilliantly skewering the value system created and promoted by the entertainment industry. With the new promotional materials, including a splashy trailer, it is clear that the new film may, like the earlier ones, capture some of Collins’s artistry, even if it may not transmit her message about the dangers of entertainment and selfishness.
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Shiny Posters with Some Bite
Intentionally or not, the posters and trailer for the new film do have some interesting fodder for conversation as we ponder some of the deeper meaning in Collins’s prequel and consider how it might translate to film. There have been several stills released from the film, and we can surely expect an onslaught of character images and other promo pieces as the release date draws closer. The two main posters that are currently on display are both quite interesting. One features the actors who will portray District 12’s female Tribute for the Tenth Hunger Games, Lucy Gray Baird, and her young mentor Coriolanus Snow.
Their poses, like those of the tributes on the posters for the other films, are stylized, as they gaze off into the distance looking attractive and brave. Ironically, as readers know, young Mr. Snow is fated to make terrible decisions and to become the monstrous President Snow who sends a host of tributes to their likely deaths, including Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark. In this image, however, he does not look like a cruel, sociopathic despot in the making. His signature curls look attractively tousled over his clear eyes, a subtle reminder that Peeta, too, will be known for his blond curls and blue eyes, but Peeta, unlike Snow, fights against the darker side of his humanity, even though he faces an uphill battle. Snow’s fists are clenched, representing his fight to prove himself, to rise to the Snow name, to achieve glory and power. Although readers know that he is technically not a tribute in the Games, he does fight and kill in the arena, and he makes the same morally questionable choices Tributes make when faced with the possibility of death. Interestingly, his well-cut suit does not exactly match the description from the novel, in which the impoverished Snows struggle to buy food, much less new clothes, so perhaps this dapper get-up is supposed to be old-fashioned, dated by Capitol standards and all he can manage.
By his side, Lucy Gray Baird looks hopeful rather than determined to fight. Her cream blouse matches his shirt, reminding us of the way these two are similar in their abilities to manipulate, to find a way to win, tainting them enough that they don’t wear white. But her rainbow skirt is more than the performer’s costume described in the novel, it is a reminder that she is different from Snow, not just flashier, but intrinsically separate from him, with a fire he cannot match.
They are framed by a golden Art Deco-style border that evokes the decadence associated with the Gilded Age, echoing The Great Gatsby, another story of a doomed relationship blighted by social expectations and ambition. The fact that it is gold is not only a reminder of this story’s themes of poverty and greed, but also a salute to the alchemical themes so prominent in the original trilogy. The briars of a rose bush entwine the frame, the thorns prominent. There are a few beautiful blooms, but many falling petals. Snow, who will cultivate and prize roses until his dying day, is strongly connected with them during this novel, but the woven rosewood briars also connect beautifully to Lucy Gray’s role as a balladeer. One of the most famous ballads, one definitely known to Lucy Gray’s Covey, is “Barbry Allen.” Since one of the Covey is Barb Azure, named for that song, it’s certain Lucy Gray would know it well, the story of a scornful woman whose disdain kills her suitor and whose regret kills her shortly thereafter. They are buried side by side: “From William’s grave, grew a red, red rose,/But from Barbry’s grew a briar/They grew and grew to the old church tower/Till they could grow no higher,/And there they tied, in a true love’s knot,/The rosewood and the briar.” Readers know that this relationship, like that in the song, is doomed, if for different reasons, and those woven roses take us to both Snow’s obsession and Lucy Gray’s profession.
The other two prominent emblems in the poster also echo those roles. Over Lucy Gray’s head, a golden bird hovers, presumably a mockingjay, a reminder of her role as a singer. Next to Snow is a very menacing serpent, fangs bared. Together, these two emblems embody the elements of the title of the novel and film.
Ironically, the actual title is not prominent on the poster, overpowered by the big tagline “Everyone Hungers for Something” and even by “The Hunger Games” even though this is a prequel, not actually part of the original series. As carefully as Collins planned her trilogy, with threes used at every turn, she would not violate that trefoil structure by making this a “fourth story” in The Hunger Games narrative. Oddly, the smallest words on the poster are “The Ballad of”; perhaps the poster planners don’t realize that in addition to the fact that Lucy Gray is a creator and performer of ballads, the story itself is a ballad. Traditionally, popular or folk ballads are always narrative, have specific characters, and tend to be about two themes: love and death. Those are certainly the dominant threads of this story, but perhaps the designers chose to downplay the idea of a ballad, a concept unfamiliar to many modern audience members (most of whom think any slow song is a ballad, like 80s power ballads) and just chose to stress the songbird and the snake.
Those two images are the central figures in the other poster being promoted. The golden mockingjay seems to be taunting the golden serpent, and they are both surrounded by a much more bloom-heavy rosebush, as well as by the circle that, like the one on the dustjacket of the novel itself, is meant to serve as a reference to that famous pin that Katniss Everdeen will sport in the 74th Games. That circle, like the one on the book, is a branch, rather than a solid, inorganic material, a reminder of the way in which Lucy Gray and Snow have very different views of nature. While she is at home outdoors and finds nature to be a refuge, he quickly becomes disillusioned with the outdoors and sees nature as something that needs to be tamed, or, like his mentor, Dr. Gaul, he wants nature to be altered to suit the Capitol’s purposes. After all, this is the guy who thinks there is nothing wrong with the jabberjays, controlled by the Capitol, but is revolted by the mockingjays, the result of nature finding its own way. The mockingjay here echoes the failure of the Capitol to have the complete control it wants, while the serpent certainly reminds us of the snakes that are used as plot devices in the story. Since this snake looks unlike any real snake native to the region that will become District 12, it may be meant to be a representation of the genetically altered serpents from Dr. Gaul’s lab, rather than one of the snakes Lucy Gray always finds. Interestingly, the serpent depicted on the original bookjacket appears to be nonvenomous, with a blunted snout and rounded eyes, while the one on this new movie poster looks venomous, with fangs and a very menacing posture (although even non-venomous snakes can strike and bite, as readers of the novel know well).
The posters may give the impression of a very clearly defined correlation between symbols and characters (Snow=snake, Lucy Gray Baird=songbird), but readers of the novel know differently, as we are aware of the fascinating blurred lines that make these characters so interesting. Snow also sings, with great “authority,” and Lucy Gray has her serpentine qualities, as she uses poison and enchants snakes of all kinds, even human ones.
Sneak Previews in the Trailers
The teaser trailer, using those golden symbols bursting from snowy versions, seems to promote the over-simplified perspective of these symbols, inviting viewers to watch the film so that they can discover “who is a songbird and who is a snake”; savvy readers know that the question is not that simple.
The Full Trailer elaborates on the posters and the teaser, promising both intriguing connections to the text and Hollywood business as usual. Right from the opening and again at the end, the image from the second poster, animated like the ones were for the previous films’ trailers, is used as a frame and reminds audiences of that duality in the symbols, if perhaps without the nuances of the written text.
Casting for Success
The Final Trailer is focused on selling this film as the back story of the previous (huge blockbuster) ones, to bring in audiences who loved the previous films and want more. Some very nice connections to the previous films are used in the trailer, including one great shot that is presumably Tom Blyth as young Coriolanus Snow, but he’s so backlit that he could easily be Donald Sutherland, who played President Snow in the previous films. Blyth seems to be a good casting choice, based on this trailer. While he has seemed too tall for the role from the beginning, that concern is based on the book, not the previous films, so he was likely chosen, in part, because he makes a convincing young Sutherland, who is actually even taller than Blyth.
What we can see in the trailer bodes well for his ability to convey the young Snow, whose moral compass skews further and further off north with every self-serving choice he makes. Of course, even a morally bankrupt protagonist has to have some charm in Hollywood, where even characters like the Joker are not always treated as villains, so we can see young Mr. Blyth as a charmer in this trailer. In that aspect, there is considerable attention played to Snow’s infatuation with his tribute, Lucy Gray Baird. Rachel Zegler looks like she will do her own fair share of charming, although the trailer does not have any audio of her singing, so it remains to be seen if she aptly portrays that most important aspect of the character.
Many other cast members get nods in the trailer. Much has been made of the casting of trans actor Hunter Schafer as Tigris, but, considering how the decadent Capitol is obsessed with body modification and self-indulgence, it seems Hollywood, in trying to be inclusive, is really just showing, yet again, how the story of the Hunger Games is painfully accurate about the narcissistic cult of entertainment. It is interesting that this casting, unlike Snow’s, makes no effort whatsoever to match a younger version of a character with the older one, but then, poor Tigris has been so damaged by surgery, tattooing, and heaven only know what else by the time of Mockingjay that she would have been unrecognizable as her former self anyway.
The success of the previous films means that some heavy hitters could be recruited for the film, including the incomparable Peter Dinklage and Viola Davis, both of whom promise to be fantastic in their roles as Dean Casca Highbottom and Dr. Volumina Gaul, respectively. They each get a few snappy lines in the trailer to show that we have world-class actors here, and, knowing these two, we could probably already pencil them in for awards nominations as they portray two very complex characters, some of Collins’s finest creations. Dinklage is a master at playing damaged, corrupted people, so the drug-addicted Highbottom, consumed by the fact that the Games are, intentionally or not, his fault, will be a great fit. Davis promises to bring just enough maternal warmth to make Gaul as disturbing and chilling as she is on the page.
New faces abound, of course, including a host of youngsters as the tributes of the tenth Games. I, for one, am very interested in seeing Josh Andres Rivera as Sejanus Plinth, as the trailer features the character in one of his best moments of moral clarity in this this world of moral depravity. This clip alone gives me great hope that he will play well one of the few characters in the story who really does seek to be a good person, to preserve his humanity and that of others, to embrace the good Lucy Gray states lies within everyone. Tortured, tragic Sejanus, the moral conscience Snow ignores and ultimately destroys and replaces, is central to the novel, so let’s hope Rivera gets plenty of screen time.
Production Design Promise
The costumes these actors wear are also intriguing. In contrast to his cream shirt on the poster, Snow seems to be wearing a white shirt here in the Reaping scene. With a red rose and black vest and trousers, our alchemical motif, so prominent in the books, seems assured. I also like the use of many early twentieth-century hats and other styles, creating a visual world that looks old-fashioned compared with that of the movies that take place sixty-four years later. The font style used on the first Hunger Games broadcast, hosted by Lucky Flickerman, has a great vintage look, as do many of the clothes and other props. The best costume piece I have spotted so far only appears for a second. When Lucy Gray Baird is playing guitar, presumably in the Hob after her return to 12, she is sporting a lovely gold bracelet, a bracelet shaped like a snake. Will the movie explain this accessory that is not in the novel? Will it be part of the pay-off she is given by Highbottom? Will it go unremarked, just inviting us to continue asking that question about who is a snake and who isn’t?
Many of the nice symbolic elements in the trailer, like that fabulous bracelet, will doubtless be “throwaways,” never explained, by providing some good symbolic foundation for the film and conversation fodder for nerds like us who notice and appreciate such touches.
The classical elements, reminders of the Capitol’s Roman scaffolding, are very nice. While the casual viewer may not notice that our Capitol characters have gorgeously Roman names, from Coriolanus to Casca and Livia, perhaps the ponderous architecture of the Capitol will make an impression with its Roman touches, like the massive statue (Victory? Justice? Some other concept perverted and controlled by the Capitol?) with her crossed swords and the Arena, where the Games will be conducted. One shot is clearly of the Arena before the blast that injures Snow and takes out a few tributes and mentors, while others appear to be during the Games, showing far more devastation, so that bomb will be a doozy.
Still the Magic Number
While the film may disappoint in other symbolic payoffs, the use of threes is already on display, so that is promising. In the opening cut, at the Academy, there are three emblems over Gaul’s head, displaying a sort of masonic icon that appears to be the logo of the school, since Snow is wearing a pin with that symbol on what appears to be his school uniform. Heavensbee Hall, where she is speaking to the students, has three blue banners down each side with that same symbol, and three red ones in the back with the stylized sort of eagle symbol that we have seen used before for the Capitol in the other films. Three of those eagle icons adorn the outside of the building, which is a clear nod to the architecture of Nazi Germany, just as the Peacekeepers evoke that same aesthetic.
As the trailer winds up the excitement, showing the broadcast that will become the template for the Games and their combined roles as punishment and entertainment, a cool, mechanical voice, the sort that tells us to step back because the train doors are closing or to use caution in stepping onto the platform, repeats, exactly three times: “Enjoy the show.” That repetition not only stresses the Capitol’s promotion of entertainment as a tool of control, but also echoes the use of threes we have seen used so nicely by Collins in her novels.
One of the best moments of the entire trailer is when the Tributes, arranged much less carefully than they will be in the later, more regimented Games, wait to begin, with a countdown that begins: “five, four, three, two,” but instead of “one,” we get a cut of Coriolanus, who breathes “Run.” That moment not only indicates that he may, at least for a moment, be concerned about someone other than himself, but it also echoes the advice that Haymitch gives to Katniss in the seventy-fourth Games. For a smaller tribute, Katniss or Lucy Gray, running is a safe way to survive the first few moments of the Games.
The Trailer also has a couple of nice touches at the very end. We hear Snow, as played by Sutherland, say that famous line: “It’s the things we love most that destroy us.” The line is played with a shot of Lucy Gray affectionately showing a snake to someone, perhaps Maude Ivory. Interestingly, that’s a Scarlet Kingsnake, not venomous, and native to eastern Kentucky, although unusual. The Scarlet Kingsnake nicely encompasses those alchemical colors, with the red, white, and black (which help us remember he’s not venomous: red touch black, poison lack, as opposed to the coral snake: ”red touch yellow, kill a fellow”).
There is also a shot of a shirtless Snow in his Peacekeeper phase, looking thoughtful, perhaps as he decides those very important choices at the end of the novel, those choices that shape his path, and that of his country. The idea may be that snakes, which Lucy Gray loves, can kill (not a Scarlet Kingsnake, though. He’s just pretty), or that Lucy Gray and Snow are dangerous to each other in their romance. But there is something else there, too. Anyone who has read this book knows that what Coriolanus Snow loves the most is himself. His selfish ambition and pride destroy those who love him, like Sejanus, and effectively destroy “Coryo,” the bright young man who could have been something better, but who chooses instead to sacrifice others, to put all on the altar of his vanity. As he declares earlier in the trailer: “Everything is about winning.”
Those Mockingjay notes at the end are primarily intended as a reminder to audiences that this is part of the franchise they know and love, so they should be prepared to spend money to see this one, but they are also a haunting salute to the power of music and the way In which nature can evade all attempts at control, both themes that suffuse the novel, and we hope, will shine through in the film.
Although, ironically, this marketing campaign is a sales pitch crafted with enough razzle dazzle to please even Plutarch Heavensbee, it does promise some thoughtful possibilities for the film, as it begs the same questions we have asked before: “Does the entertainment industry realize that this story, among other meanings, is transmitting the idea that if we make comfort and entertainment our gods, our bread and circuses, we are as morally depraved as Snow and his ilk?” “Does the entertainment industry care, as long as we all fork over our admission to the theater?” and, more importantly, “Can a film transmit meaning in a way that will make viewers think, or at least take them to the text, which can do so more effectively?” Time, and Thanksgiving, may provide some answers.
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