Tom Blyth, left, and Rachel Zegler in “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes.” Murray Close/Lionsgate

For all of their young-adult sheen and PG-13 restraint, the Hunger Games movie adaptations tend to triumph when they avoid sanding off the source material’s sharper edges. As envisioned by novelist Suzanne Collins, the dystopian realm of Panem – where combatants between the ages of 12 and 18 engage in an annual fight to the death for the elite’s amusement – offers an incisive metaphor for class oppression and sociopathic voyeurism. It’s supposed to be bloody, and it should be brutal.

“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes,” the new prequel film based on Collins’s 2020 novel, mostly gets this. This shaggy but ultimately satisfying installment, set six decades before the four movies starring Jennifer Lawrence, carves out its own identity by leaning into its subtitle. If music is food for the soul, “Songbirds & Snakes” serves its tunes with a heaping side of venom.

That poison flows through the mind of Coriolanus Snow, the budding academic who will eventually become Panem’s autocratic ruler. (Donald Sutherland played the character in the previous films.) When, after a brief prologue, we meet the ambitious, 18-year-old Coriolanus, as inhabited by Tom Blyth with steely intensity, he is living in Panem’s capital with a cousin (Hunter Schafer) and grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) to support and a once-proud household to resuscitate. In hopes of winning an illustrious scholarship, Coriolanus takes on an unexpected assignment: as mentor for Hunger Games participant Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a nomadic musician boasting an aw-shucks affectation and affinity for serpents.

If you haven’t read Collins’s books, or recently re-watched the earlier movies – the last one came out in 2015 – comprehending the nuances of Coriolanus’s circumstances may be a chore. As written by Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt and directed by franchise steward Francis Lawrence, “Songbirds & Snakes” stumbles through a disorienting opening and does frustratingly little to get viewers back up to speed.

Here’s all you need to know: The new film is basically a “Revenge of the Sith”-like origin story, as Coriolanus slithers from empathetic to disillusioned to sadistic. Although that inevitable arc unfolds in jarring stops and starts, the film’s convention-bucking structure – let’s just say this story doesn’t end with the Games themselves – gives Blyth ample time to dig into Coriolanus’s moral descent. After starting with a dull good-versus-evil binary, presenting Coriolanus and his fellow mentor Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera) as isolated idealists looking to effect change from within a system of oppression, this 2 1/2-hour lament sings in its final act by putting those characters’ resolve to the test.

Jason Schwartzman in “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes.” Murray Close/Lionsgate

Like any good Hunger Games movie, “Songbirds & Snakes” invites its performers to a scenery-chewing feast. As Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman, the Hunger Games’ inaugural host, Jason Schwartzman exudes slimy showmanship and a comically crass disregard for human life. (Case in point: He refers to one ill contestant as “tuberculosis on legs.”) Peter Dinklage plays Casca Highbottom, the drug-addicted creator of the Games, with beleaguered guilt. And Viola Davis is gleefully unhinged as head gamemaker Volumnia Gaul, a cackling mad scientist who precisely pronounces every syllable in la-bor-a-tory and sports a white dress that looks like it was dipped in a pool of blood.

Tom Blyth, left, and Viola Davis in “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes.” Murray Close/Lionsgate

Zegler, however, is the showstopper. From the moment we meet Lucy Gray, when she’s picked for the Games in the unlucky lottery and responds by belting out a plucky protest song, the 22-year-old ingenue astounds. Whereas “West Side Story” highlighted Zegler’s precise soprano, the folksier, guitar-plucking melodies of “Songbirds & Snakes” unleash the unfiltered intensity of her screen presence.

Centered on the 10th Hunger Games, this prequel’s visuals split the difference between contemporary society and the heightened sci-fi setting of the previous movies. By laying the seeds for that grotesque future, “Songbirds & Snakes” deconstructs a dystopia wherein human nature is laid bare, classism runs rampant and audiences’ ogling instincts careen toward their foregone conclusion. While the fantastical flourishes that make it into the film largely feel out of place, the reintroduction of mockingjays – parrot-like birds with a knack for echoing humans’ screams and songs – inspires one of the franchise’s most haunting sequences.

Other fan service is regrettably on the nose, inducing more groans than pangs of recognition. The script also strains to disguise setups for obvious payoffs, and this sprawling story still cuts corners – particularly when it comes to portraying Lucy Gray’s fellow gladiators as anything other than cannon fodder. Still, this grittier, more intimate realization of Panem compels. When the turnstiles into the arena cheerily chirp “enjoy the show” – perhaps holding a mirror to the bloodthirsty instincts of the movie’s audience – the franchise’s dichotomy of spectacle and savagery sings with renewed resonance.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.