It has been 11 years since Katniss and Peeta were introduced in The Hunger Games, the film that broke box office records and kicked off a dystopian blockbuster trilogy. The duo were dragged back into the arena in the sequels Catching Fire and Mockingjay: Part One before they finally found some semblance of peace in the most recent movie in the series, Mockingjay: Part Two.
Given the cross-generational fanbase built by the franchise, it was inevitable that there would be another story to tell. It finally arrives in the form of prequel on Friday, November 17th in theaters., The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Set some sixty years before the events of the first film, Ballad serves as an origin story that explains how the ruthless world of The Hunger Games came to be.
If you’re new to the franchise, missed one of the films, or need a refresher course, we’ve created a quick catch-up guide to help you jump into the latest installment.
What Do I Need to Remember about The Hunger Games?
The benefit of prequels is that you don’t actually need to know or recall what happened in the other stories. But as this is an elaborately built scifi fantasy world with a lot of backstory and references, it helps to know the storylines that the new film will help to explain.
So here’s the need-to-know: The Hunger Games trilogy is set in a future world called Panem, which has a geography similar the US, but is run by a totalitarian government known as the Capitol — also the name of a district where the citizens live in luxury. The outlying 13 districts live in poverty and are forced to provide the Capitol with the material goods they need, such as coal, power, agriculture, etc.
Roughly 74 years before The Hunger Games trilogy, the districts rebelled against the Capitol in a civil war referred to as “The Dark Days.” Both the districts and the Capitol suffered tremendous losses in the three year conflict, and at the end of it, District 13 negotiated a separate peace treaty, as they owned a nuclear arsenal. Their citizens of 13 proceeded to go underground afterwards. And by underground, I mean literally underground, as though they were moles.
The remaining 12 districts were forced to sign the Treaty of Treason, where they gave away their basic rights. Part of that treaty included the Hunger Games, an annual event in which one boy and one girl are “reaped” (selected from a lottery) from their district and dropped into a competition where they fight to the death in a sprawling “arena” — one with extreme weather, very limited food, and deadly mutilations. Only one victor can remain at the end.
(Spoiler alerts below for the previous films in the franchise)
The quick arc of the the trilogy goes like this: In the 74th Hunger Games, we meet Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who become the two final victors of the Games — but only after saying they would kill themselves in the arena unless they could both be anointed. Despite surviving the deathmatch, they’re thrown back into the games in the second film in the series, Catching Fire, where Katniss is ultimately rescued by the rebels from District 13, while poor Peeta is captured by the Capitol.
In the third film, Mockingjay: Part I, District 13 uses Katniss as a propaganda machine to rile up the districts and declare war on the Capitol. And finally, in the most recent film, Mockingjay: Part II, District 13 rescues Peeta, who joins up with Katniss and the other rebels take down the Capitol.
Katniss and Peeta’s lives aren’t exactly perfect after all that—they both suffer from PTSD and depression. But they do get to return to their home and have a family, so it’s a sort of happy ending that wraps up the trilogy.
So what’s the appeal of this dystopian franchise?
Based on the bestselling YA novels by Suzanne Collins, who also wrote the screenplay for The Hunger Games, the franchise was always more layered than Lord of the Flies, which it was initially compared to. The pitting of teenagers against each other in a survival of the fittest contest is a theme that resonates across many young adult novels, movies, and shows (see this year’s Yellowjackets). But The Hunger Games explores bigger anxieties facing everyone — a future impacted by ecological damage that threatens food supplies, a larger gulf between the haves and have nots, and the inevitable warfare that breaks out in the wake of both.
The parallels with war and U.S. history rear their head in the details, such as the 13 districts, which bear more than a slight resemblance to the 13 colonies that led to the American Revolutionary War. The spectacle of the deadly battle — filmed and watched by adults at home as a “reality show” — is intended by the ruling class as a “catharsis” for the masses that’s intended to replace actual war, and each kid (they are all kids between 12 and 18) who gets killed is celebrated as a “fallen hero,” one who made the ultimate sacrifice for the cause of peace. For a YA adaptation, it’s heavier and more allegorical than it first appears.
What do I need to know about The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes?
Set 64 years before the 74th Hunger Games (where we meet Katniss and Peeta), The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes reveals what the early Hunger Games were like – and how the brutal spectacle came to be. This is told through the eyes of Coriolanus Snow, who went on to become the President (aka dictator) of Panem.
When we meet him, the 18-year-old Snow is attending the Academy, an elite school for the creme de la creme of the Capitol. But the Snows are far from elite; in fact, they’re broke, due largely to The Dark Days. In order to attend university, Snow needs to win the Plinth Prize, awarded to the mentor whose tribute (the poor person whose name is pulled during the lottery and reaped for the games) emerges victorious in the Hunger Games. To his chagrin, Snow ends up with Lucy Gray Baird, the female tribute of District 12. However, when Lucy captures everyone’s attention by singing at the reaping, Snow realizes he may just have a winner on his hands.
How is The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes Different from The Hunger Games?
Fans of the franchise should be prepared for a big departure — in story, theme, and even genre. As Deadline describes the film, “at its core this sci-fi political action thriller has the underpinnings of a sublime romantic country western musical, and when you finally see it, you’ll get what we mean.”
As the film takes place decades before The Hunger Games, you can also expect a completely different aesthetic. The Capitol is just coming out of The Dark Days, so it lacks the glitz and glamour seen throughout the original trilogy. The technology looks like its from the 50s, with art decor architecture to match. We’ll get to see a lot more of the Capitol as well, as its home to Snow and the Hunger Games arena.
Speaking of the games themselves, get ready for a gladiator-esque battle royale. Initially, the Hunger Games were not designed for entertainment, they were designed as a punishment. So the early tributes were thrown into a Roman-style arena and given weapons. They typically lasted a few hours rather than several days. And all that pampering Katniss and Peeta got? Lucy doesn’t get the same treatment. Instead, she and the other tributes are locked in cages at the zoo because apparently The Capitol needed to be even more dehumanizing. We will also learn how the Hunger Games were turned into a reality show designed to attract Capitol audiences.
The Characters You Need to Know in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) — The protagonist of the film (and I use that term lightly), Snow isn’t 100% evil—yet. He is revealed to be power-hungry early on and is easily corrupted. He does share a close relationship with his mentee, Lucy Gray Baird, which later helps explain his disdain for District 12. While their relationship is romantic, there’s a power imbalance since Coriolanus is the mentor of Lucy, who has to fight for her life.
Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) — Consider Lucy Gray to be the anti-Katniss. The only thing they share in common is that they are both from District 12 and are reaped into The Hunger Games. Lucy Gray is a talented singer and natural performer who lives to perform. She’s also a charmer who gets under Snow’s skin. Katniss’s story in the games asks what happens when you throw a hunter into a performance. Lucy Gray’s story asks what happens when you throw a performer into a hunt. Lucy Gray will also reveal the origin of the song, “The Hanging Tree.”
Tigris Snow (Hunter Schafer) — We actually met Tigris in Mockingjay when she helps the rebels storm the Capitol. But in this film, we learn that she’s related to Coriolanus. She’s his cousin, to be exact. And she’s his closest confidante. Tigris helps humanize Coriolanus, and she’s one of the most unique characters introduced.
Dr. Volumia Gaul (Viola Davis): Dr. Gaul puts the psycho in psychopath. She’s the twisted gamemaker behind the 10th games and introduces more than a few horrors that become synonymous with the games, like mutations. She’s vital in turning Snow into the ruthless leader he later becomes.
Casa Highbottom (Peter Dinklage): The Dean of the Academy, Highbottom is the unintentional creator of The Hunger Games who had a close relationship with Snow’s father.
Lucky Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman): Cesar Flickerman, played by Stanley Tucci, was the host of The Hunger Games Katniss and Peeta were a part of. Lucky is the host of the 10th Games shown in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. He’s as charming as Cesar and his ability to entertain the crowd helps set the tone for the spectacle of The Hunger Games.
Consider yourself prepared. And let the games begin.