Hunger Games prequel: untangling the controversy over The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes

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Suzanne Collins’ The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes has highlighted an uncomfortable trend in books and movies

We have long awaited a new story from talented writer Suzanne Collins. Now, at long last, it seems our prayers have been answered.

As you have no doubt gathered from social media, there’s been a lot of buzz around The Hunger Games’ prequel, The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes. And we mean a lot of buzz. Not all of it, however, has been positive.

First, some context: Suzanne Collins’ new novel begins on the morning of the reaping of Panem’s 10th Hunger Games. This means that, yeah, it’s set a lifetime before Katniss Everdeen (portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence in the movie adaptations) volunteers as tribute.

Rather than introduce readers to a series of new characters, however. Collins has decided to make an 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow the focus of her story. As in the same Corionlanus Snow who, over 60 years later, serves as Panem’s ruthless and tyrannical ruler. Who threatens the lives of Everdeen’s loved ones. Who tortures her friends for information. Who, indirectly or not, caused Cinna’s death. Who brainwashes Peeta and forces him into the role of assassin. Who uses the Capitol’s children as a human shield.

The same Snow who proves himself to be a cruel, sadistic, wrathful, violent, greedy, arrogant, power-hungry, wicked and purely and utterly evil man, obsessed with keeping the perfection of the established order and maintaining absolutely no respect or care for human life. 

That Snow.

In the OG Hunger Games books, then, Snow is our villain. In the prequel, though, he switches from antagonist to protagonist in the blink of an eye… and it’s a decision that has sparked some ire online.

“No one wants this,” tweeted one person in response to the news.

“I was excited about Suzanne Collins releasing another book in The Hunger Games universe, until seeing it’s about 18-year-old President Snow,” added another.

One more said: “I’m all for a Hunger Games prequel, but the fact it’s centred around President Snow just ruins it.”

And another furiously tweeted: “I cannot fucking believe The Hunger Games prequel is about President Snow.”

Of course, it’s not the first time that we’ve seen a fictional villain offered a redemption arc. Indeed, it’s fast becoming something of a trend: Anakin Skywalker got the treatment in the Star Wars prequels, The Wizard Of Oz’s Witch of the East was made infinitely more relatable in Wicked, Maleficent helped give Disney’s Sleeping Beauty some new context, and  Joker saw Joaquin Phoenix delve deep into the past of Arthur Fleck – aka Batman’s psychotic arch-nemesis, The Joker.

Plus, let’s not forget that just last year, Margaret Atwood’s critically-acclaimed novel The Testaments offered us a new perspective on Aunt Lydia, oh she of The Handmaid’s Tale villainy.

So why the backlash over this Snow situation? Well, as Caroline Carpenter, author of the Guide To The Hunger Games, tells me: “Many of us were drawn into The Hunger Games series through the character of Katniss – a shining example of a young woman fighting for what she believes in against the odds and tearing down the power structures of her society along the way.

“To flip the story to focus on the architect of those power structures feels somewhat tone-deaf, especially in our current climate.”

Carpenter isn’t wrong. Even before The Hunger Games prequel was announced, President Snow was trending on social media as a comparison tool for the likes of Trump and other world leaders’ response to the coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, a particular line has been drawn between America’s assertion that opening schools will “only” result in 2-3% of the country’s children, and Snow’s insistence that Panem’s children fight to the death every single year in a ghoulish spectacle.

It is also worth noting that, while delving into a character’s psyche has become commonplace, there is a very fine line between indulging fascination with sheer titillation. Therein is the worry: a character meant to be despised, like Snow, runs the risk of becoming… well, mythologised, or even something of an idol. Especially if moviemakers go with public opinion and cast teen heartthrob Timothée Chalamet as Snow in The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes.

Carpenter, who is as intrigued as we are to see what Collins has planned for Snow’s story, is less worried about the matter of Snow’s redemption arc. Her concern, rather, lies with the story’s ability to hold and captivate fans’ attention.

“Many are bored of stories about people like President Snow as we see so many of them already, both in fiction and real life,” she says. “Personally, I would have preferred to see an origin story about one of the other secondary characters from the series, such as Mags or Haymitch or Finnick, or even an entirely new story set in the same world.

“That said, Suzanne Collins might surprise us all with a completely fresh take that defies our expectations.”

She’s right again, of course. Collins is a brilliant and insightful writer, and we have yet to read The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes. Indeed, the author may not paint Snow as a victim of circumstance, and instead, surprise us with a tale about a young man who charts his own course towards evil (teaching us more than a few valuable lessons about good and evil along the way).

That being said, though, the book’s synopsis very much implies that the Coriolanus Snow of the OG Hunger Games would never have existed, could never have existed, if society had treated him better.

“The odds are against him,” it reads. “Snow’s been given the humiliating assignment of mentoring the female tribute from District 12, the lowest of the low. Their fates are now completely intertwined – every choice Coriolanus makes could lead to favor or failure, triumph or ruin. Inside the arena, it will be a fight to the death.

“Outside the arena, Coriolanus starts to feel for his doomed tribute… and must weigh his need to follow the rules against his desire to survive no matter what it takes.”

Of course, we will withhold judgement until we’ve read The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes in full.  Which we will do, willingly, as we remain to this day huge Hunger Games fans.

In the meantime, all we can do is express the hope that Collins doesn’t ask us to think too kindly of a machiavellian murderer. Because we remember what he did to the Capitol, to prim, to Peeta, to Katniss. And there’s basically nothing in his past that will inspire us to forgive him. 

Ever.

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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