The Hunger Games series was a popular sensation after the release of the first novel in 2008 and the film adaptation that followed four years later. The work of Suzanne Collins rapidly became a touchstone for 21st-century dystopian fiction. Much like The Matrix and Mad Max, the title itself has become a kind of shorthand for the dystopian characteristics of our own society. The phrase “Hunger Games” evokes images of poverty, authoritarianism, and the sacrifices demanded of ordinary people to keep the system going.
The iconography of The Hunger Games has also become a fixture in real-world political uprisings. Protesters for democracy in Thailand took up the three-finger salute that symbolizes the fictional rebellion in the series. So did demonstrators against the coup government in Myanmar more recently.
Collins has now published a prequel to her original trilogy called The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. It’s a readable and engaging work that deepens the satirical themes of The Hunger Games with unflinching depictions of war, inequality, and poverty. Few mainstream contemporary novelists have as much to say about class as Collins, and few can grasp the connection between capitalism and right-wing authoritarianism so sharply.
Hunger and hard luck in the capitol
Katniss Everdeen, the hero of the original trilogy, faced a nemesis called Coriolanus Snow. Snow, played by Donald Sutherland in the movies, is the elderly president of Panem, a fascist nation that rules a future North America depopulated by climate change. His genteel, patrician manner barely conceals his ruthlessness and cruelty. It might seem surprising that Collins decided to make a teenage Snow the protagonist of this prequel.
The events recounted in Songbirds come 64 years before those in the first Hunger Games novel, and a decade after the bloody, unsuccessful First Rebellion referred to in the earlier books. Panem’s capital in the Rocky Mountains, modeled on ancient Rome, reigns over twelve provincial districts whose inhabitants are harshly oppressed workers.
The plot still revolves around the Hunger Games, a bloody competition in which child tributes from each of the subjugated districts fight to the death as punishment for the rebellion. In Songbirds, the Games are a recent invention and a much less polished affair than they later become. At the novel’s outset, an eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow is finishing high school at the elite Academy, which all the children of the Capitol’s ruling class attend. He receives an assignment to mentor a tribute in this early, experimental edition of the Games.
Despite his privileged background, Coriolanus has already known hardship in his life. The Snows, once a proud aristocratic family, are now desperately poor, having lost their fortune in the war that also claimed the lives of his parents. Raised by his mentally unstable grandmother and an older cousin, he spent much of his childhood malnourished during the rebel siege of the Capitol.
The combination of hard luck and ruling-class entitlement has made Coriolanus a bitter, desperate young man. Without money or influence to rely on, all he can do is engage in frantic social climbing. Participating in the Games is a chance for Coriolanus to win favor in the backstabbing social hierarchy of the Capitol.
As the book opens, Coriolanus is making cabbage soup to stave off hunger pangs before school. “The endless dance with hunger had defined his life,” Collins writes, reminding us of the experience of his future nemesis, Katniss.
That doesn’t mean Collins is constructing an insipid morality tale where we’re expected to sympathize with both protagonists. The narrative is emphatically on the side of the districts fighting against the injustice of the Capitol. But this focus on Coriolanus does give us an insight into the other side of class struggle — the ruling class.
Whenever we might be tempted to identify with “Coryo,” as his cousin affectionately calls him, we get a reminder of his worldview, his contempt for “district scum.” The narrative thrust of Songbirds sometimes resembles that of Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 sci-fi movie that satirized fascism from the perspective of the fascists. There are no “good guys,” no sympathetic figure for the viewer to cling to.
There’s something both hilarious and suffocating about the adventures of this manipulative, scheming, elitist kid, who remains loyal to a fascist state despite its frequent cruelty to him. At one point, a science instructors subjects Coriolanus and a fellow student to a sadistic experiment by their science instructor, unleashing genetically modified snakes on the terrified kids — an over-the-top plot twist that reminds of cult horror films by the likes of John Carpenter or Sam Raimi.
Dehumanisation and desire
If Songbirds has a hero, it’s Lucy Gray Baird, Coriolanus’s mentee. Like Katniss, Lucy Gray is a girl tribute from District 12, the coal-mining district, located in present-day Appalachia. The sixteen-year-old is a country singer who uses her charisma and skill as an entertainer to win sponsorship in the Games. Inevitably, Coriolanus falls in love with her. Brash and colorful where Katniss is gruff and reserved, Lucy Gray hails from a clan of nomadic, vaguely anarchist troubadours. She’s an engaging character and clearly the story’s moral center. But with the narrative unfolding within Coriolanus’s head, we don’t get to spend much time with her.
As Lucy Gray fights for her life in the Games, Coriolanus follows the action on a giant-screen TV at the Academy. There are long passages in which Coriolanus watches a live feed of an empty arena, obsesses over the lavish food, or gives smarmy TV interviews to fill airtime, while we have no idea what Gray is going through. By detaching the reader from the spectacle of the competition, Collins seems to be satirizing her own saga. The comically inept production of the 10th Games, in contrast to the slick entertainment depicted in the original trilogy, magnifies the sense of irony.In these early versions of the Games, the authorities do not treat the child tributes as celebrities. Lucy Gray and the others arrive in the Capitol in a livestock car on a freight train, to be caged in a filthy, decrepit zoo — two images with obvious historical associations to slavery and Nazi genocide. One little girl at the zoo exclaims: “They’re not like me! They’re district. That’s why they belong in a cage!”
This dehumanization gives the romantic subplot an intriguing ambiguity when it might have otherwise felt forced and contrived. Coriolanus clearly has a lot of power over his captive mentee and would-be love interest.
Collins treads a fine line between horror and comedy throughout the book. In one chilling passage, Coriolanus recalls a time from his childhood during the siege when he saw a neighbor carving up the dead body of a maid who had died of starvation. It’s a ghastly scene, but the author turns it into a running joke.
As in the original trilogy, the writing is rich with mythological and Christian symbolism, and literary allusion. The real history, culture, and folklore of Appalachia — not least its proud history of labor struggle — is a strong undercurrent. Lucy Gray and her band perform real-life country standards in passages reminiscent of the Coen brothers movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Panem’s political economy
Collins’s fictional world is fascinating in part because of her materialist explanation for social conflict. Panem is not only a totalitarian state — it’s also an economy. Any fan can recite the list of essential goods the Capitol rapaciously extracts from each district, at great cost to the health and happiness of the workers.
The power that controlled needed to be greater than the people — otherwise, they would challenge it. The only entity capable of this was the Capitol.
Decades later, in the future history of this world, Katniss will inspire the workers to unite against their common enemy: the ruling class. This fictional revolution, which continues to inspire real-life revolutionaries, is only a latent potential in the prequel, but the anticipation of what is to come enlivens this compelling story. We know that the Capitol’s end is predestined, and the purpose of Collins’s satire isn’t to foster despair or cynicism but anger.