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What to Know Before Watching The Hunger Games Prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

4 minute read

Fans of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games franchise can dust off their bow and arrows as the series returns to the silver screen with the long-awaited prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, out Nov. 17.

The film, based on the Collins’ 2020 prequel to the hit Hunger Games trilogy, stars Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird and Tom Blyth as a young Coriolanus Snow, in addition to a stacked cast that includes Hunter Schafer as Snow’s cousin, Tigris; Viola Davis as Dr. Volumnia Gaul; Peter Dinklage as Dean Casca Highbottom; and Jason Schwartzman as Lucky Flickerman. The prequel, which goes back 64 years before the events of The Hunger Games, gives audiences a look at an earlier era of Panem, as the Capitol prepares for the 10th annual Hunger Games.

In the book and movie, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes details a fundamental turning point for the Hunger Games and draws out Snow’s backstory, adding dimension to the villainous character who later becomes Panem’s tyrannical president. Snow is crucial to making the Hunger Games not just a brutal bloodbath but a form of inescapable entertainment for the Capitol. Songbirds and Snakes sets into motion the events of The Hunger Games trilogy. Here’s what to know.

How The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes connects to The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games series and Songbirds and Snakes is set in Panem, a war-torn dystopian version of North America, comprising 13 districts and the Capitol, which has all of the money and a cast of colorful characters. Each district has goods they produce for the Capitol (oil, lumber, fish, etc.) and are numbered based on class, with District 1 being the wealthiest and resource-rich, while the others are less so. 

After an unsuccessful three-year rebellion against the Capitol by Panem citizens, about a decade before the events of Songbirds and Snakes, the Hunger Games were established as a yearly tradition of violent control. Each district is made to send a teen boy and girl—selected during a ceremony called “The Reaping”—to an arena where they fight to the death, leaving the sole survivor as the winner. The Capitol imposed the game to punish the districts and remind them who holds the power. 

The Hunger Games seen in The Hunger Games movies are a well-oiled machine of entertainment and spectacle: the tributes get makeovers and weapons training before entering violent battle in an arena that can change at any time at the whims of the game’s controllers. The games are televised, turning the tributes into characters with storylines for the Capitol audiences to root for—and, eventually, help by sending medication and food to their favored fighters.

Songbirds and Snakes opens on a cruel but much less exciting version of the Hunger Games. In the first 10 years of the games, tributes are sent into an arena with nothing but weapons, and left to fight—leading the game to end within a couple hours. Decades before Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark enter the picture, the makers of the games are figuring out how to, essentially, increase ratings and interest in the games.

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird and Tom Blyth as Coriolanus Snow in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and SnakesCourtesy of Lionsgate

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes tells President Snow's backstory

Students at the most prestigious school in the Capitol become mentors to the tributes in an effort to make the games more entertaining. Coriolanus Snow, a student at the Academy, suggests that the games play to audience interests and sets the precedent of tributes receiving gifts through sponsors. Along with his classmates, Snow is also tasked with mentoring one of the young tributes. When he meets tribute Lucy Gray, a member of a musical nomadic people who got stuck in District 12 during the war, they form an unexpected bond, throwing Snow’s future into question. She and Snow must work together to ensure her survival but, of course, not everything goes according to plan.

In the Hunger Games, Snow is Katniss Everdeen's foil. True to his name, he’s icy and has it out for Katniss after she forces the hand of the gamemaker into letting both her and Peeta win. Songbirds and Snakes reveals why Katniss' unwavering confidence in herself and her abilities is a particular thorn in Snow's side: they remind him of Lucy Gray.

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Write to Moises Mendez II at moises.mendez@time.com