In today’s late-capitalist marketplace of prequels and revivals and otherwise shameless nostalgia-baiting, the exchange rate for Suzanne Collins’s latest novel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, is about 1:3—or 1:25, depending on the currency. One Ballad goes for approximately three Star Wars: The Phantom Menaces on the Millennial market. On that same market, I’d say it would take at least twenty-five Harry Potter and the Cursed Childs to equal one Ballad. And that isn’t, necessarily, to suggest that Ballad itself is great. It’s fine. But at least when compared to the most egregious examples of franchises cynically resuscitating their old properties, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a prequel to Collins’s mega-bestselling Hunger Games trilogy, beats out much of the field. It, at least, has something worth saying.
Or it almost does.
Set roughly sixty years before the Hunger Games trilogy, Ballad is, essentially, two origin stories in one. Primarily, it’s the coming-of-age story of Coriolanus Snow, the man who eventually becomes the wizened villain of the trilogy, President Snow. But it’s also the origin story of the Hunger Games themselves. A gladiatorial contest orchestrated by the powerful Capitol and fought by child-tributes conscripted from the lowly Districts, the Hunger Games are still in their infancy when the novel begins. All the razzle-dazzle, the televisual extravaganza that makes the Games so wickedly dystopian in Collins’s trilogy—all that is still on the horizon here. Instead, what The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes imagines is the first sustained effort by the Capitol to transform the Games from crude political theater, meant to punish the Districts for a recent civil war, into a spectacle palatable to Capitol citizens. It’s against this backdrop, then, that young Coriolanus, ambitious but hampered by the diminished circumstances of his aristocratic family, lucks into a coveted appointment: to mentor, for the first time in the history of the Hunger Games, a District tribute. What follows is Coriolanus’s growth as he finds himself increasingly—and increasingly romantically—entangled with Lucy Gray Baird, his assigned tribute, a young woman from District 12 who knows her way around the spotlight.
Curiously, it’s with respect to that spotlight that Ballad is at most disappointing. Despite narrating the roots of the culture of spectacle and hyperreality that comes to dominate the Hunger Games in the original series, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes has little new to say about mass media. Betting and sponsoring tributes, it argues, encourages audience investment. Likewise, it suggests, the best contestants make themselves likable—they cater to the fantasies of Capitol spectators. And, honestly, suggests is too generous a word. Because the novel—and a shaggy novel at that, dependent too often on the propulsive force of cliffhangers—is set during the Hunger Games’ earliest years, most often the insights into mass media that made the original trilogy so fascinating are explained to us by characters who are themselves only just starting to connect the dots. As a result, Ballad often finds itself didactically retreading much of the ground that, for its predecessors, emerged organically.
And then there’s Coriolanus himself. A case study in ideological indoctrination—in brainwashing, basically—Coriolanus is a far, counterrevolutionary cry from Katniss Everdeen, the reluctant radical at the heart of the Hunger Games trilogy. And that is not, in itself, a bad thing. Although it’s fair, as plenty of Goodreads reviewers have griped, to complain about Coriolanus’s unlikability—his preoccupation with appearances, his self-centeredness, his eminent weenie-ness—his characterization is not, of necessity, a knock against the novel. Anti-heroes, and even monstrous protagonists, have their place. But where The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes stumbles is in the unenviable position into which its central premise propels it: the need, on the one hand, to balance audience identification against the need, on the other, to produce a franchise-spanning villain.
It’s too bad—both for the novel and, more specifically, for its white readers—that Ballad errs on the side of the villain, because it’s here that the story comes closest to offering a substantive intervention.
A series that has routinely sublimated racial anxieties into concerns about class and geography (notwithstanding its real-world audience’s demonstrably racist anxieties), the Hunger Games has always centered whiteness in its depictions of the Capitol. A quintessentially imperial power, the Capitol enjoys whiteness’s casual presumption of ownership. It assumes whiteness’s political authority, and thus it shares with whiteness its easy confidence in the rightness of its rule. Indeed, it is whiteness that makes possible the Reaping, in which District children are unwillingly enlisted for the Hunger Games, just as much as it is whiteness that made possible the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade by US police. Yet for all that whiteness comes under implicit scrutiny in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, the easily identifiable, and easily condemnable, shallowness and hypocrisy of Coriolanus—those qualities that are most essential in transforming him from Capitol citizen into the archvillain who, in sixty years, will bear the brunt of Katniss’s rebellion—also give cover to those white people who, like me, would claim to know better.
After all, from the perspective of whiteness, Coriolanus’s moral failing is not that he aligns himself with the Capitol. It’s that he does so too obviously. He’s a ready object of critique, a ready cite of deflection—a ready villain, in other words. “Sure, he might do that,” we white people might say, “but I’d never.”
But then what might this story look like if folks who, as James Baldwin puts it, think they are white, were made to sit with their discomfort?
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.