Warning: Contains spoilers
When you're preparing a Case edition on origin stories, and a major origin story movie is released at the cinema—an origin story that explores meta-origin stories no less—what choice do you have but to discuss it?
The Hunger Games: Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, based on Suzanne Collins’ 2020 novel of the same name, is the origin story of President Snow, the villain of the original hugely successful Hunger Games series. More often than not, dragging out movie franchises is a bad idea. Think Fantastic Beasts, most of the later Star Wars and Marvel offerings. Driven by a desire to cash in on existing loyalties, rather than inherently strong plots and character arcs, big budgets only get them so far. In this arena (pun intended) you could be forgiven for thinking twice before heading off to see Songbirds and Snakes. But Collins is a cut above your average YA author, and on that basis I was willing to risk it. I wasn’t disappointed.
The Snow family lost its fortune in the Dark Days—the rebellion of the Districts against the Capitol—resulting in widespread destruction and scarcity. It was a time that left scars on the child Coriolanus, but he has grown into a brilliant and likeable youth who hopes to restore the family fortune and status. Someone unaware that he is destined to become the malign President of the original series might assume we were being introduced to a hero who would overcome the odds and inspire us to follow our dreams. But we know this is not where Snow’s story will go, and the desire to see him prevail with moral integrity intact, together with the knowledge that he will not, sustains tension throughout.
Set ten years after the Dark Days, while the Capitol is still recovering, the Hunger Games—not yet the elaborate affair of the Katniss years—are losing their lustre and facing potential closure. There was not much lustre to start with. These early games, which saw tributes (children from the Districts) fighting to the death in a bare arena, were expected to fill no more than a bloody hour or two. But this year, high achieving students from the Capitol, including our ‘hero’, are each allotted a tribute to mentor to Hunger Games success and, more importantly, improve ratings. (Is there some wry self-reference going on here, with this the plot for a prequel set to revitalize a fading franchise?)
Coriolanus is initially appalled at being landed with apparent no-hoper, District 12’s Lucy Gray Baird. But feelings develop between them as Coriolanus guides her to and through the Games, which she wins largely as a result of his morally ambiguous interventions on her behalf. (To be fair, in circumstances such as these it is difficult to find a morally uncompromised path: should he play by the rules of the evil game and let his protégé perish, or disregard them and help her survive despite the consequences for the other tributes?)
His actions do not go unnoticed though, and in the eyes of the Capitol, are considered cheating plain and simple. So Coriolanus is sent to District 12 to do time as a peacekeeper, where he is joined by his idealistic classmate Sejanus. While there he reconnects with Lucy Gray, and their relationship flourishes, and for a moment we see a glimpse of a potentially idyllic future. But events and self-interest lead to Coriolanus making choices that—while understandable—become harder to excuse. He first rationalises betraying Sejanus, and later, outright murder. Afraid of being caught, he reluctantly gives up hope of returning to the Capitol with Lucy Gray. Instead, they escape into the wild to live off grid together—an idea that appeals much more to the nature-loving Lucy Gray than the ambitious city-boy Snow. As events unfold, distrust and fear develops between them. Paranoia sets in, and their final scene together sees a total disintegration of their relationship. Does she try to kill him? Does he try to kill her? Does he succeed? All are possible, none are certain. The world has become the arena, life a fight for survival.
Coriolanus returns to the Capitol where his initiatives to repackage the Hunger Games as entertainment prove effective. Capitol interest is rekindled, and the Games develop into the high-tech spectacle we know and abhor from the original series. Snow’s rise to power has begun.
Collins writes because she has something to say. She often draws on real historical events, as any thoughtful reader of the original Hunger Games and (sadly underappreciated) Overlander series will be aware. By bringing these stories to life with characters we care about, she raises effective warning flags about social trends we might not otherwise see.
Songbirds and Snakes, however, is less rooted in historical events than philosophical debate. It’s both a gripping story and an exploration of ideas about the development of moral character—in particular, the character of Snow. This is even more explicit in the book than the movie, where an epigraph lists conflicting quotations from Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Wordsworth and Shelley that raise questions about human nature and its relation to society. Throughout the narrative, Coriolanus encounters people who expose him to these conflicting perspectives, and situations that allow of different interpretations depending on which framework they are being viewed through.
Is the arena the place where a buffer of civilization is stripped away leaving the essential violent and self-interested core of humanity exposed (Hobbes)? Or do the Games manufacture unnatural conditions that force natural human benevolence to be suppressed and distorted (Rousseau, Shelley)? Does reason enable us to recognise our inherent equality and treat each other accordingly as Sejanus urges (Locke), or simply to rationalise such choices as cheating and betrayal, and override our inclinations to the sweet ‘lore which Nature brings’ (Wordsworth)? Lucy Gray tells Coriolanus there ‘is good built into us all’ and that we have a choice whether or not to cross the line into evil. As his exposure to different people and experiences of the world accumulate throughout the story, he is weighing up these different options.
Snow’s stance is ultimately decided in the climactic scene in the wilderness with Lucy Gray. Though open to other interpretations, he reads this as a situation of mutual war, each reduced to prey and predator—and so he lands squarely on Hobbesian ground. Coercive government is justified as the only way to control people’s mutually competitive and self-seeking tendencies and enable society to function. From this point, the trajectory from Coriolanus to President Snow makes perfect sense.
Yet this conclusion doesn’t make Songbirds and Snakes an apologia for Hobbesian principles. Questions remain: could Snow have interpreted events and human actions in a different light? Could he have chosen differently? It is clear from the original series that although the Hobbesian explanation rings true, Collins believes a different, better society is possible. As Christopher Watkin points out in our lead article, the various perspectives explored in Songbirds and Snakes do each contain some truth, yet none gives the full picture. To see that we must look to the biblical narrative of creation, fall and redemption, which both acknowledges real evil in the world, and gives us hope that it will not ultimately triumph. Collins, a Catholic, is well aware of this narrative, and it is reflected in her avoidance of simplistic resolutions. The story is bleak, but there is still hope.
Dr Dani Scarratt has a background in philosophy and is Assistant Director of CASE.
Comments will be approved before showing up.