Elly McDonald

Writer

Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins (2020) – The Hunger Games prequel

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Kudos to Suzanne Collins for ignoring commercial imperatives and writing a Hunger Games prequel the fans will hate, not filmable as a blockbuster. Though it could make a terrific art-house film.

This prequel is set 63 years prior to the first of The Hunger Games trilogy: 517 pages thrashing out the Hobbes vs Locke Enlightenment philosophers’ debate – human darkness vs human optimism – through the making of a dictator, the unmaking of a man. I’ll attempt this blog post without spoilers. The biggest ‘spoiler’ is a given: Coryo Snow, a boy of promise, must in the end be Coriolanus Snow, the sociopath tyrant.

My sister and I both hated that sentimental, golden glow epilogue tacked onto the end of The Hunger Games film trilogy. We saw it as a betrayal of the novels.

“The point,” I glowered, “Is that heroes, if they survive, are maimed for life, irrevocably damaged.”

“No,” said my sister, who always knows best. “The point is that heroes become monsters. Heroes are killers. They can’t escape that.”

Coriolanus ‘Coryo’ Snow is the ‘hero’ of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a title explicitly referring to the Americana murder ballad tradition. He’s a ‘hero’ who over the course of his narrative becomes an anti-hero and ultimately, long before The Hunger Games trilogy kicks in, an antagonist.

In the C17th, philosopher John Locke contended that human beings are born into the common condition of humanity (which for him, encompassed a concept of human rights), but that each individual is born a “blank slate”, with the capacity to make moral choices that determine the kind of human they become: self-authored. Thomas Hobbes, in contrast, argued that human nature is base, brutish, a reactive amygdala wired to fear, aggression, violence, self-preservation: self-interested (no, Hobbes did not pre-empt neuroscience, my amygdala reference is anachronistic).

The Hunger Games is a battlefield where the ideas of Locke versus Hobbes play out. In Collins’ Hunger Games novels, every person fights through their own Hunger Games, in their own arena. The slogan is “May the odds be ever in your favour”. But when the game is skewed, and the odds are never in your favour, the outcome can only be Hobbesian.

The boy Coryo Snow starts, as all Hunger Games contestants do, with a set of resources (weapons), and a set of deficits. Coriolanus is the 18 year-old son of a dead war hero, from a patrician family whose antebellum wealth was immense. Their fortune was based on munitions, with manufacturing and research bases in District 13, nuked out of existence during the war.

Coryo was an 8 year-old orphan when the rebels were defeated. His people, in the Capitol, were ostensibly the ‘victors’, but his cohort grew up under blanket bombing, with constant gruesome death, starvation, even cannibalism. They endured their own “hunger games”, desperately trying to stay alive on the thinnest gruels, sparsely dished out. Even 10 years post-war, the streets are blocked by rubble, the poor still go hungry (very hungry), and the final year students at the Capitol’s elite Academy bear a huge weight of expectation to revive the Capitol’s prosperity. They also carry an immense legacy of bitterness.

Coryo has social capital (he is part of the elite), but no actual money. If the Snow family is to recover what he sees as their rightful place, he must attend university. If he is to attend university, he will need scholarships. He is battling for The Prize. The final year of schooling is an arena in itself.

Coryo’s personal capital (resources) include an exceptionally astute strategic mind. He grasps situations quickly, with clarity, and can formulate swift, effective responses. Excellent survival skills. But if you see things with clarity, and can see where they’re headed, and what it takes to survive is an unethical action, or actions, are you morally culpable? Is it more worthy to act in line with idealist morality and die?

What if the idealists by their actions endanger others, people who owe them nothing (unless altruism is a human absolute)?

Or: is seeing situations with clarity and acting pragmatically, in one’s own self-interest, the definition of sociopathy?

Coryo’s personal capital also includes charm. He’s an actor. He is constantly alert to the impression on others his behaviours make. Is he irrevocably two-faced, to be condemned, or is that good sense? What consequences follow being too honest, too open?

It’s important to register that although this novel is not told in the first-person, directly in Coryo’s voice, everything is presented from his perspective. That’s terrific, in that Coryo is awake to most of the information salient to his survival. But it is a self-justifying perspective. And he has pronounced blind spots.

Given how astute he is, and how obvious some of the information he filters out is to a reader, what determines these blind spots? Is it simply that he doesn’t want to see some things? Is this guilt? Or, again, is it sociopathy: he screens out distasteful data that serves his survival?

He’s certainly obsessive.

It’s fair to say Coryo is deaf to poetry and does not understand music. That’s a shame, as the person he believes he loves is a poet and musician. We have no access to who that person is beyond the poetry and music they articulate, because Coryo is stumbling blind there.

What he does know is this: ‘She’s onstage. You’re onstage. This is the show.’

The Capitol’s chief of weaponries research tells him, “You’re good at games. One day you’ll be a Gamemaker.”

The thought had never crossed his mind. […I]t didn’t seem like much of a job. Or like it required any particular skill, tossing kids and weapons in an arena and letting them fight it out. He supposed they had to organise the reapings and film the Games, but he hoped for a more challenging career. “I’ve got a great deal to learn before I can even think of that,” he said modestly.

Coriolanus is nothing if not a fast learner.

That’s his dilemma: what is he – nothing, or a fast learner?

Afternote: A 1799 poem by William Wordsworth is a key device in this narrative. It’s worth noting Wordsworth started out as a youthful radical liberal and aged into a conservative. I think there’s a point there.

The_Ballad_of_Songbirds_and_Snakes_Elly_McDonald

 

 

 

Author: Elly McDonald

Australian-born, with English mother, has lived in several Australian cities and in London. Travelled widely. Way way back when, published widely as a poet and short story writer. For the first 20 years of my working life I worked as an entertainment journalist, publicist, PR consultant and in advertising and media agencies. In the second 20 years, I worked in marketing roles at non-profit organisations then retrained as a teacher, primarily teaching English to non-English speaking, newly-arrived refugees. Also did miserable McJobs, and a long, happy stint at an art gallery.

8 thoughts on “Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins (2020) – The Hunger Games prequel

  1. Very nice, Elly. I appreciated the philosophical background squaring off Hobbes against Locke. The rest sounds OK but not my cup of tea at the moment as I am buried in the works of Max Charlesworth – writing his intellectual biography. There are times when Hobbes and Locke come into view here, but often the collisions are even nastier, which I leave to your imagination.

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    • Ian fundamentally The Hunger Games novels remain teens killing each other, which I can’t imagine you reading for 517 pages. Add in Bentham – Coryo is assigned an essay on “chaos, control, contract”, as in social contract. His tutorials are unusual.

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  2. I loved The Hunger Games trilogy but I’m not sure from your review if I want to read this prequel. Maybe it’s timing. It’s perhaps not the right time to read about the evolution of a sociopathic, narcissistic leader who thinks life is a reality game show in fiction when there’s too much evidence of what happens when they get into power in the news….

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    • There is no feel-good in this novel. I agree, it might not be the right time to read it. Truthfully, just writing this blog post sent me into depression for maybe 48 hours. But I hope my first paragraph isn’t taken to mean it’s not a book I highly recommend. I *do* recommend it. My intro was meaning to say, it you’re the kind of fan who thinks this is a vid game transferred to film spectacular, and if you think there can be a happy a happy ending, it’s not for you.

      I discussed TBSS at length with my sister today. I can’t stress enough that while Coriolanus unambiguously ends up a psycho, the boy Coryo is not, necessarily… though maybe. IMO, he goes mad. Was he always mad? Was he always, irredeemably, a hopeless narcissist? The Games as at year 10 after the war are not much of a spectacle and are, spectacularly, unwatched, not only because they’re vile but because most folks in the Districts cannot afford working televisions and are obliged to be at work.

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      • It calls into question, yet again, eternally, the impact of nurture vs nature. Or, as I prefer, the impact of nurture ON nature.
        Your last sentence may be the impetus I need to read it (just not right now). I would be interested in reading that earlier moment in time in terms of the Games.
        I actually read the books before I watched the movies and honestly, I like both. Although, I do tend to agree with you on that final scene. Urgh.

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        • I like both the books and the films, too: I just HATE that epilogue. And I do find the films become increasingly vid game-type adventure movies, which have their place – but I can see TBSS as a spare, tense, b&w thriller, along the lines of the 1993 James Caan-Gwyneth Paltrow, Dennis Quaid-Meg Ryan Midwest gothic creepy Flesh & Bone. (I see Wiki calls that “neo-noir”. I can see TBSS being filmed as neo-noir.)

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  3. “And that’s when it dawned on Dad that they were just little kids, like any little kids, like his little cousins and the kids he remembered from back home.”

    From an Australian Broadcasting Corporation online article 12 August 2020, about a WW2 serviceman posted to Hiroshima immediately post-war.

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  4. … btw my sister, as ever, was absolutely right: “Heroes become monsters. Heroes become killers. They can never get past that.” People didn’t get that out of the trilogy and resist that message, again, presented here more harshly.

    I thought again about certain incidents in this book, and I’ve come to the conclusion Coriolanus is a kind of mutt(ation), the outcome of an experiment by an evil scientist. Just what Coryo feared he’d become.

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