Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
During one of Rachel Zegler’s first red carpet appearances for The Hunger Games prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, the actor was asked about the difference between her character Lucy Gray and the protagonist of the original series, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence). “Lucy Gray is a performer forced to fight and Katniss is a fighter forced to perform,” Zegler said, highlighting how the two characters differ in their motivations, but remain connected through the aspect of performance.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes sees Lucy trying to use her voice to convince the Capitol that what they’re doing with the Hunger Games is wrong, but no matter how loud or how much she sings, they don’t listen. Katniss is forced into the role of a martyr and ends up being the face of rebellion. In Mockingjay - Part 1, the third film in The Hunger Games series, Katniss finally has the Capitol’s attention and sings a song, “The Hanging Tree,” that becomes a powerful anthem and tool of civil unrest.
Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games series and the prequel, wrote the lyrics to the song, which originally appeared in the novel Mockingjay, and worked with The Lumineers’ Jeremiah Fraites and Wesley Schultz to bring it to the movie adaptation. “The Hanging Tree,” which featured vocals from Lawrence, became a haunting folk ballad with influences from Appalachian music, and drew comparisons to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and the civil rights protest song “We Shall Overcome.”
During an appearance on Late Night With David Letterman, Lawrence said she was nervous about singing the song in front of other people and had asked the director, Francis Lawrence, to see if Lorde, who appeared throughout the film’s official soundtrack, could record song, with Lawrence lip-syncing. But eventually, Lawrence became comfortable with her voice. The song became a runaway hit outside of the film, climbing to No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 2014.
In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, “The Hanging Tree” gets new life via Zegler.
How “The Hanging Tree” became a crucial part of The Hunger Games
In Mockingjay - Part 1, the president of the secret rebel District 13 Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) uses Katniss as a face for a propaganda campaign to fuel the rebellion against the Capitol, asking her to become their “Mockingjay.” When Katniss and the rebels are making their way to a bombed District 12, her former home, she sings “The Hanging Tree” to a colony of mockingjays who mimic her, and the crew begins filming her to broadcast to all the districts, empowering the citizens of District 5 to destroy a hydroelectric dam—the Capitol’s main source of electricity. Because of Katniss, the song becomes the soundtrack to the revolution.
In Mockingjay, Katniss is said to have learned the song from her father and would sing it while making necklaces with her sister Primrose. Her mother banned the song from being sung in their house after hearing it.
In the prequel book, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, it’s revealed that Lucy Gray Baird wrote the song after witnessing the murder of a man named Arlo Chance, who is hanged at a tree where executions take place. He was accused of murdering two Peacekeepers and a coal mine boss (hence the lyrics, “say he murdered three”). His lover, Lil, attempted to plead his innocence. Lucy Gray writes the song but is asked not to perform it. Somehow, the tune gets passed down to Katniss.
“The Hanging Tree” is featured in the film adaptation of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, when Lucy is seen sitting in a field with a guitar singing the tune. She is back in District 12 after she wins the Hunger Games. Coriolanus Snow, her mentor in the games who falls in love with the tribute, finds her. It’s their first reunion since he was excommunicated from the Capitol and managed to get stationed in District 12 as a Peacekeeper. After hearing her sing “The Hanging Tree,” he comes to associate it with her forever. Toward the end of the movie, they make an unsuccessful attempt to run away together. But Lucy she doesn’t seem to trust Snow, and there’s a moment when something fundamental shifts in Snow, as the warmth leaves his body and he becomes the icy President we later come to know in The Hunger Games.
When Katniss sings the song in Mockingjay, she doesn’t realize exactly how deeply the song affects President Snow. A larger question still looms over the connection between Lucy and Katniss: How does Katniss learn the song if we don’t know Lucy’s fate? The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes doesn’t quite provide the answer but does leave the door open for another installment.
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Write to Moises Mendez II at firstname.lastname@example.org