Once, there rose a country called Panem. It was divided into 12 Districts and ruled by the Capitol. The Districts served the Capitol, providing goods and services. But then they rebelled.
Although the Capitol ultimately won, the war left many of its children orphaned and men cutting up corpses in the streets for food. So, as punishment for the rebellion, the Capitol created the Hunger Games.
Now, once a year, two children from each District are chosen to be “tributes” to participate in the Games, a televised fight to the death.
But this year, the 10th Hunger Games, things are just a bit different.
Instead of dropping the tributes into the arena starving and desperate to survive, they’ve been assigned “mentors,” graduates of the Capitol’s elite Academy, a secondary school for the children of Panem’s wealthy and powerful.
Coriolanus Snow is one such mentor. And more than most, he needs his tribute to become victor of the Games—or at least to give the best performance for the cameras.
See, unlike other students at the Academy, Coriolanus is poorer than most of the people starving in the Districts. His family lost their wealth during the rebellion after his father, a general for the Capitol, was killed by rebels.
And since the Games have been decreasing in popularity—possibly because Capitol citizens finds the Games barbaric and cruel, possibly because they’re just boring—a cash prize will be awarded to the mentor who manages to increase the Games’ ratings by getting the best performance out of his or her tribute.
Coriolanus has his work cut out for him. He’s assigned Lucy Gray Baird, a girl from District 12, one of the poorest districts. Lucy Gray is underfed and physically underwhelming—certainly not the type to wield a sword against her fellow combatants in the Games.
But Lucy Gray is also cunning. She captures audiences’ attention before she even reaches the Capitol by slipping a snake into the dress of her rival at District 12’s reaping ceremony (the event where tributes are chosen). And she wins some fans when she follows up that act of defiance with a beautiful song.
Coriolanus is certain he can use Lucy Gray’s charm to earn her donations—which will allow him to send her gifts of food and water during the Games. And if she can win … well, that would solve all of his problems.
What Coriolanus doesn’t expect is to fall under Lucy Gray’s spell himself. But he can’t have both. So soon, he finds himself in the unenviable position of choosing between the girl he loves and the future he always dreamed of.
A few tributes, especially Lucy Gray, try in earnest to avoid bloodshed in the Games. They protect their friends and avoid battles by hiding instead of fighting. Lucy Gray helps Coriolanus when he’s injured (even though someone points out that he probably wouldn’t have done the same for her). And one boy even buries several of the fallen tributes during the Games.
Sejanus Plinth, one of Coriolanus’ fellow mentors, hates the Hunger Games and frequently protests their existence. His family bought their way out of the Districts, and he resents being asked to mentor one of his former classmates in the Games. And while he’s largely unsuccessful in his endeavors, Sejanus never stops trying to help the people in the Districts.
A few other characters, including Casca Highbottom, the creator of the Hunger Games, express genuine empathy and remorse for all the lives lost.
There’s a philosophical debate posed throughout The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes: What is the purpose of the Hunger Games?
Some believe it’s to punish the Districts for their rebellion. Others think it’s to remind the Capitol what the Districts are capable of. But ultimately, we’re told it’s to show everyone exactly what human beings will devolve into without peace and order.
This is a rather dismal view of the world, but it’s not entirely inaccurate. Scripture tells us that we are all born sinners. And it’s only through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the Holy Spirit living within us that we are redeemed of that sin.
However, Panem isn’t a place where God is ever discussed—in fact, it may not even be a place where folks are even aware of His existence.
In contrast to the prevailing dour view of humanity, Lucy Gray hypothesizes that human beings are born innately good, and that we each fight a battle within ourselves to maintain that goodness. So when the innocent—children—are corrupted by the world and forced to fight for their lives, it’s not their fault, and they can’t be held responsible for the evils they commit.
It’s a nice, hopeful thought, certainly. But despite that optimistic tint to Lucy Gray’s worldview, this idea is also, at its core, a deeply humanistic one. And unfortunately, it’s also the main theme of the film.
Any families considering this film would do well to discuss the film’s worldview and contrast it with Scripture’s understanding of our fallenness and need for redemption, as well as our inherent dignity as people made in the image of God.
Coriolanus and Lucy Gray kiss on several occasions. Several tweens and teens go swimming in a lake wearing swimsuits and undergarments. We see a young man sitting in his underwear and later showering from the waist up. Couples dance at a bar-like venue.
We hear that Lucy Gray’s ex-boyfriend cheated on her with another girl.
Students of the Capitol’s Academy wear a unisex uniform that includes a knee-length skirt worn over a pair of trousers. A female character is portrayed by a trans actor.
Unfortunately, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, much like the Hunger Games themselves, doesn’t hold much back in terms of violence against children.
The tributes are mistreated from the moment they’re selected in a ceremony aptly called the “Reaping.” They’re herded into windowless train cars typically used for cattle. (Bats living on the train attack them, and one boy contracts rabies after getting bitten.) Once they arrive in the Capitol, they’re forced off the train into the back of a windowless truck. And from there, they’re dropped onto a rock structure inside a zoo cage where Capitol citizens can gawk at them until the Games begin. Additionally, they’re denied some much-needed food and medicine.
But while their initial treatment is abhorrent and inhumane, it’s only the beginning.
Several of the tributes are inclined to violence, making threats to each other and Capitol citizens alike. And we hear that one teen killed a Peacekeeper (the Capitol’s military police) back in his District.
Hunger is used as a weapon. And a mentor toys with her tribute while the girl is in the zoo. She offers the starving teen a bottle of water, yanking it out of reach whenever the girl tries to grab hold. The tribute eventually snags it, smashes it on the cage bars and then stabs her mentor in the neck with the broken pieces. Peacekeepers shoot her in response.
Rebels bomb the Games arena when mentors and tributes tour it. This kills a few people and injures more, including Coriolanus. Several tributes attempt to escape in the chaos, but they’re shot down by Peacekeepers. One boy manages to escape, but he’s later caught and beaten offscreen. We see him again at the start of the Games when he’s strung up by his wrists from a concrete beam.
And then the Games begin.
Tributes ranging from ages 12 to 18 begin grabbing weapons scattered throughout the arena and killing each other. Six are murdered within minutes, a bell tolling at each death. And more are killed as the film progresses.
Two children die from inhaling and drinking rat poison (these deaths cause convulsions and nose bleeds). At least four children die when snakes are released into the arena; the reptiles completely envelope their victims as they bite them. And still another boy is beaten to death.
Several teens form an alliance, working together to hunt down and murder other tributes. However, this alliance is easily broken, and they eventually turn on each other.
There’s the question of why the tributes don’t simply refuse to fight. However, after forcing them all into the ring, Peacekeepers inform them they’ll be shot if they don’t comply. Additionally, someone mentions that the Capitol will have their families back home killed. And one teen boy notes that killing, while awful, also makes him feel powerful.
Mentors realize that the drones programmed to bring tributes gifts of food and water are completely unreliable, flying at uncontrollable speeds and crashing. One mentor uses this to his advantage, causing the drones to crash into a “pack” of tributes that were hunting his own. And another tribute is killed after a drone knocks him off a beam.
Unfortunately, violence isn’t limited to the Games. One man is poisoned. Peacekeepers carry and use guns. A few other characters get hold of some guns, too, using them to kill their enemies. A man is hung for allegedly killing three men (though his wife claims he’s innocent). Three others are hung for treason against the Capitol. And the daughter of District 12’s mayor actively tries to get Lucy Gray killed, too. (She manipulates her father into reading Lucy Gray’s name at the Reaping later, and she tries to report Lucy Gray for treason.)
One of Coriolanus’ friends is bitten by a poisonous snake, and it’s unknown if she ever recovers. Lucy Gray slips a snake into a girl’s dress. The girl is unharmed, but her father slaps Lucy Gray to the ground. And Coriolanus is bitten by a nonpoisonous snake.
A woman threatens to cut out a man’s tongue. A girl’s hand is smashed in an air duct. A drunken man starts a brawl after roughly shoving his current girlfriend and harassing his ex-girlfriend. We hear about people who are tortured for information.
In a flashback to the war, a young Coriolanus and his cousin, Tigris, watch a man cut up a corpse for food. They’re also attacked by a rabid dog, which Tigris beats away with a trash can. Upon returning home, Coriolanus learns his father was shot by rebels. We later hear his mother died in childbirth along with his baby sister. An older Coriolanus reflects on eating a jar of paste during the war when he was starving just to stop the pain in his stomach.
We see a rat dying from poison, surrounded by vomited blood. A woman experiments on many creatures, keeping several in jars as souvenirs. Vultures pick apart a corpse.
There’s a single use each of “a–” and “p-ss.”
Casca Highbottom, dean of the Academy, says he created the Hunger Games as part of a drunken joke. He began taking morphling, an opioid-like drug, during the first Games because of his guilt over the deaths of children.
He soon became addicted to the substance, and we see him consume it many times throughout the film. (A student is shocked when the Academy lets him speak at a public event while clearly under the influence.) A guy says he was prescribed morphling for pain after getting injured.
Many people drink and get drunk at a bar-like venue. A teen girl jokes she gave up booze when she was 12 years old as she takes a swig from a bottle.
Many Capitol citizens are heartless hypocrites. They’re rude to tributes and other people they consider “beneath” them. They joke about people starving in the Districts. Most of the mentors care more about winning the prize money than they do about whether their tributes survive. And audiences are encouraged to pick a favorite tribute to give donations to and to bet on.
The Gamemakers (the people responsible for televising the Hunger Games) only care about ratings. And the Head Gamemaker makes it clear that she’s not above creating a spectacle to get the reaction she wants.
People are bullied. Characters lie, cheat and accept bribes. We hear about people taking credit for others’ work. And one teen betrays several of his friends before destroying evidence of his own treason.
A mentor is criticized for vomiting after witnessing the deaths of several tributes. A man accidentally spits on a teen boy without apologizing.
At its core, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a commentary on humanity. Are people born good or evil? What drives a person toward one or the other moral trajectory? The story also asks what is the real purpose of the Hunger Games? And why should they continue?
Throughout the film, several characters, namely Lucy Gray and Sejanus, try to convince those around them of the immorality of the Hunger Games. They’re unwilling to give up hope. And they try in earnest to do good.
Unfortunately, most are unwilling to take action. Capitol citizens justify the Games’ existence. District citizens are too frightened to start another rebellion. And others have flat out given up.
So what happens?
Well, children are forced into an arena to fight to the death. Families are ripped apart. People starve. And the Capitol continues to reap the benefits.
We see most of those deaths occur onscreen. And it’s brutal. What’s worse is that some characters even seem to enjoy killing. And all the while, Capitol citizens place bets and make predictions, only caring whether a tribute’s death works for their own personal gains.
Language and sensuality are kept to a minimum in this PG-13 film, but we do see the effects of drug addiction and alcohol on a few occasions.
The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes asks and attempts to answer some important questions about good and evil. But as Christians, we need to make sure we have a solid, biblical understanding of human nature—i.e. that while we’re all born sinners, we’re redeemed only by the love and sacrifice of Christ, not our own actions—before exploring this film.
That said, the grim storyline here also offers families plenty of reasons to pass on this painful prequel’s brutality and bloodshed.
Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and geeking out with her husband indulging in their “nerdoms,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything they love, such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate and Lord of the Rings.