The Hunger Games movies turned Jennifer Lawrence into a certified A-lister and ended Hollywood’s YA adaptation boom with a grace note to the tune of $3 billion worldwide. But in spite of immediate whispers that Lionsgate would quickly turn to spinoffs or reboots to keep Hunger Games fans well fed, longtime franchise producer Nina Jacobson says that was never really a possibility; if there was going to be another movie, Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins would have to write the novel for one.
“You could have gone with a fan favorite — Let’s do Haymitch’s story! Or do Finnick’s games! — but that would be doing it to do it,” Jacobson tells Polygon. “If [Collins] had a story in this world with something she wanted to talk about, something to explore, then great. But if not, better to leave a franchise as something people feel fondly about rather than crank out a sequel for the sake of a sequel.”
What Jacobson didn’t realize as she put Hunger Games behind her was that Collins did have another story to tell: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. A prequel set 64 years before the events of the original story, Collins’ Songbirds and Snakes introduces a new combatant from District 12, Lucy Gray Baird. Set amid a nascent, janky version of the Hunger Games, the novel has a familiar narrator: a young version of future Panem president Coriolanus Snow, Katniss Everdeen’s chief antagonist in the original Hunger Games trilogy.
Jacobson never spoke to Collins while Songbirds and Snakes was in development, but after reading the grim 517-page odyssey, she had no hesitation over whether the film franchise could continue. The movie adaptation arrives Nov. 17.
“Suzanne, the originator and North Star of everything that we try to do with these books, she doesn’t write just to make money,” Jacobson says. “She writes when she has something to say.”
The big questions at the heart of Songbirds & Snakes
What Collins has to say gets right into authoritarianism and social-contract-theory debate by way of Hunger Games mythology. It’s heady, but in a sea of shallow, toyetic blockbuster thrill rides, it’s an exciting prospect for Jacobson, who talked at length with Collins about Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau as she devised a modern cinematic spectacle that could still have a philosophical heart.
“Are we fundamentally good if left to our own devices? Are we fundamentally bad and need the state to keep us in check or we’ll destroy each other? These ideas about how people perceive each other and the government, and what they need based on those perceptions, felt so incredibly timely. And to do it through Coriolanus Snow, somebody we’ve all spent the last four movies hating, felt like a particularly interesting and original approach,” she says.
The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is compelling on paper, and a gamble in the modern marketplace. Jacobson admits the “original movies are very political, but they aren’t partisan or polarizing as far as our domestic politics [go].” Songbirds & Snakes, on the other hand, may feel more pointed in response to the ideological “roller coaster of the last decade.” And if the prospect of becoming culture-war cannon fodder wasn’t enough, there’s the prequel factor: The jump to Hunger Games’ past arrives after mixed reactions and cool box-office receipts to theoretical sure things like the Hobbit movie trilogy, X-Men prequels, and the proposed-as-a-Potter-pentalogy Fantastic Beasts series.
What’s the takeaway for a movie producer looking to make a prequel successful where so many others have struggled? Jacobson says her formula is pretty simple: Adapt an actual book for what it is, then recruit a team well versed enough in the material to produce a full-blown Hunger Games period piece.
Joining Jacobson on her quest to do right by Collins’ novel are director Francis Lawrence, who helmed Catching Fire and both Mockingjay films; Catching Fire writer Michael Arndt, who teamed with playwright and screenwriter Michael Lesslie (The Little Drummer Girl) to adapt the book; cinematographer Jo Willems, who shot all of Lawrence’s Hunger Games installments; and James Newton Howard, who has composed all of the series’ scores since the 2012 original. Together, the reassembled creatives worked backward, starting with the visual and world-building elements of the original Hunger Games, then stripping away all the elements to design a Panem in flux.
The Capitol in The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is far from the ostentatious high society depicted in the previous films. Ten years since the rebellion that prompted the Hunger Games, the people in charge in the Capitol rule with an iron fist. But the power players of Panem are struggling. To illustrate an era Jacobson compares to Weimar Germany, the Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes crew recruited German production designer Uli Hanisch (Babylon Berlin, Cloud Atlas) to reimagine the Capitol. They shot on real locations around the globe to bring a spirit of the past to an even darker moment in the Hunger Games timeline. The producer says parts of the film were shot in Berlin’s Olympiastadion, the stadium where Jesse Owens famously won four gold medals in 1936, and the Centennial Hall in Poland, places that “make the humans feel small by design, relative to the architecture.”
Meet the combatants, inside and outside the Hunger Games
The turbulence of postwar Panem leaves a wannabe nepo baby like Coriolanus Snow destitute and scrapping to keep up appearances. Only in the current Capitol can an esteemed mentor and scion of a rich and powerful family have a luxury apartment stocked only with gruel. Jacobson says the movie opens on an image from when Coriolanus is a child “and people are literally starving and doing whatever they have to to survive during war. It’s an essential part of who he is and who he becomes.”
Relative newcomer Tom Blyth (Benediction) plays the 19-year-old version of Coriolanus, portrayed with steely malevolence by Donald Sutherland in the original movies. “He has enormous self-control, composure,” Jacobson says of Blyth, who not only matched the look of a young “Coryo,” but had Sutherland’s “intrinsic qualities” of being a subtle showman.
That psychological take was an important match for Rachel Zegler, whose breakout performance in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story made her an obvious and perfect choice to play Lucy Gray, District 12’s chosen female tribute and Coriolanus’ mentee. Lucy is a member of the Covey, a group of traveling musicians, and unlike Katniss, Lucy shows up ready to perform, capturing the attention of the Capitol crowd through show and song.
Lucy’s musical background plays a major role in the Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes book, and will in the film as well. Dave Cobb, a Nashville staple who’s produced for Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile, Sturgill Simpson, and Jason Isbell, among others, was hired early on to help translate Collins’ many lyrical moments for Lucy into mesmerizing songs performed by Zegler. And even at the scripting stage, the creative team was doing their own homework, mainlining Ken Burns’ 16-hour doc series Country Music to bring integrity to the Covey.
Much like the previous Hunger Games films, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes’ two young leads are backed by a cast with a pedigree of prestige. Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage steps in as Dean Highbottom, the ruthless head of Coriolanus’ school and a mentor to the new batch of Hunger Games mentors. Viola Davis plays Dr. Gaul, the head gamemaker, mad scientist, and devout Hobbesian. Jason Schwartzman joins the cast as Lucky Flickerman, first-ever Hunger Games host and presumed relative of later host Caesar Flickerman. And Hunter Schafer plays Tigris Snow, Coryo’s cousin and the closest person he has to a confidant.
Schafer’s involvement is particularly exciting. While the actor-model-activist’s spellbinding turn on Euphoria has been lauded as an achievement for trans actors and representation, the role of Tigris stands to be a totally different kind of flex than the grounded high school drama. “For Hunter to represent hope and optimism about humanity, see people as human beings and not as representatives of an idea, I think that makes it a particularly interesting role for her to play,” Jacobson says of the casting. “People connect to her as a human being beyond all the vitriol and politics of this moment — people find her immensely relatable.”
Hope: still the only thing stronger than fear
While the movie boasts star power, from veteran and to fresh-faced, success may ultimately come down to the lasting glow of The Hunger Games as a franchise and the pitch to audiences of a piercing new take. As of publication, neither the WGA or SAG-AFTRA strikes have been resolved with the studio-backed AMPTP, leaving studio productions and new-release press circuits in limbo. (On the ongoing strikes, Jacobson says, “It’s been very painful to watch. [...] We’re going through a time of structural change, and we all need each other to get through it. We’re in this kind of civil war when the changes in the business are the bigger adversary.”)
And unlike most major franchise installments, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a rare one-off. It’s not intended as a trilogy-starter or continuity revival, Jacobson says. While it’s easy to imagine Collins’ book being broken into a series of films, given its scope and segmentation, Lawrence, Arndt, and Lesslie fit the full structure into one movie. (As for future one-off movies, the producer is hopeful. “Do I think she will write more books in the world? I do, and I hope she will. Do I have any idea what they’ll be? Not really!”)
So when The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes enters the arena this November, bowing in a moment of turbulence and without the typical PR blitz, it’ll basically be resting on its laurels. Luckily, according to Jacobson, Collins’ novel offered plenty to bite on. And the Hunger Games creative team bit.
“When you are living in a polarizing time, it is so much easier to assume difference is hostility and demonize the other,” she says. “This [story] is about finding connections, and finding out that you might have enormous connections to the last person in the world that you think you’d have anything in common with.”
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes arrives in theaters on Nov. 17.