Prequels can be a tricky business, as the controversial “Star Wars” prequel trilogy can attest. Since the audience already knows how the story ends, the question becomes not “what” happens, but “how”—how did Anakin Skywalker, a young and promising Jedi, turn into the evil Darth Vader?
“The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes,” Suzanne Collins’ new prequel to her hit “Hunger Games” trilogy, follows the same pattern with her own evil villain—the brutal dictator, President Coriolanus Snow. How does an 18-year-old Coriolanus, a gifted and charming student, turn into the ruthless killer that we see in “The Hunger Games”?
It’s an interesting premise, but one that was challenged by many fans when the plot of the book came to light earlier this year.
“I’ve waited years and preordered the hunger games sequel,” one disappointed fan wrote on Twitter at the time, “for it to be a president snow origin story ... about a rich white boy becoming an authoritarian who loves *checks notes* genocide?”
“Star Wars” isn’t the only franchise that has gone into developing a well-known villain’s backstory. When the movie “Joker” came to theaters last year, it received some backlash from concerned fans for “celebrating and deepening audience empathy with a white male character who’s previously been established as the villain of a franchise,” according to Vox.
But while the R-rated “Joker” was solidly aimed toward adults, “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is, like “The Hunger Games” before it, a YA novel — which makes the choice of protagonist, as well as some of the darker plot points, seem more problematic.
“Ballad” takes place 64 years before the events of “The Hunger Games,” and follows young Coriolanus Snow as he receives the “honor” of being a mentor to one of the tributes in that year’s Games. Lucy Gray Baird is from District 12 (like Katniss Everdeen before her) and at first does not seem like the sort of tribute that Coriolanus wants to mentor. Her chances of winning the Games seem slim, and her success would boost his chances of going on to study at the University and improve the prospects of his future career. Since Coriolanus comes from a poor family, his chance to be a mentor in the Hunger Games is his ticket to success.
At this point, the Games are in their 10th year and people are beginning to lose interest in watching — a far cry from the spectacle that Katniss later goes through, the tributes compete gladiator-style in an arena. Coriolanus is enlisted to help develop new ideas to keep audiences engaged and watching the Games, while at the same time trying to support his mentee, who he grows to care about. Sadly, this double standard that is never really fully addressed in the novel — that Coriolanus actively works to perpetuate the system of violence while he also develops feelings for Lucy Gray and tries to help her survive the brutal Games he has a hand in creating.
Like “The Hunger Games,” “Ballad” has its fair share of violence, though somehow reading about the brutality of the tributes fighting each other in the Games feels more unsettling coming from Coriolanus, one of the supporters of the violence. While the original trilogy was from the perspective of Katniss fighting for her own life, it is more disturbing to be “watching” the tributes as a spectator like Coriolanus.
The story also takes an abruptly dark turn in the final few chapters. Even though there is some light foreshadowing earlier in the book, the ending still makes it feel as though the author — and consequently the reader — were never fully able to get into Coriolanus’ head to explain how he truly got to the point of becoming such an awful villain.
“Ballad” almost seems to raise the question of whether it is even possible to really understand the mind of a cold-blooded killer and — if it is possible — whether we should want to.
These sorts of questions seem to make the book skew more towards an adult audience than a YA audience, especially given the novel’s truly dark ending. Readers of “The Hunger Games” will go into “Ballad” already knowing that Coriolanus ends up as a villain. His character is sympathetic and even likable through most of the book. But Collins does not make an effort to redeem him.
The book was an unsettling read, watching Coriolanus devolve from a young man who has mundane worries about things like family and schooling to one who becomes fully comfortable with violence, even against those he claims to care about. Is the story of how he got there one that’s worth telling? Do we need to know how President Snow became a villain?
We will be asking these questions again soon as the novel is already being adapted into a movie. “Ballad” is another journey into Panem that might be worthwhile for some diehard “Hunger Games” fans. But learning about President Snow’s past does not change anything about the actions that he takes in Katniss Everdeen’s future, and so in that sense, his story didn’t really need to be told.