'Hunger Games' YA fantasy prequel ditches Katniss Everdeen for President Snow

Dystopian fantasy can center male protagonists without making excuses for the patriarchy. Sadly, this does not.
Image:
Donald Sutherland in "The Hunger Games."Murray Close
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By Ani Bundel

A decade after the last novel in "The Hunger Games" trilogy hit shelves and five years after the final film adaptation hit theaters, author Suzanne Collins is going back to Panem. Her latest novel, with the far more unwieldy title "The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes," hit shelves and Kindles this week, a prequel set 64 years before Katniss Everdeen volunteered as tribute at the 74th Hunger Games.

The new novel has a lot to say about how easily violence can become banal entertainment and how short society's collective memory is when it comes to the horrors of war. But unlike the first trilogy, it offers a far more bitter worldview and a perspective suggesting that Collins believes many of her readers have already chosen to side with the oligarchy.

The new novel has a lot to say about how easily violence can become banal entertainment and how short society's collective memory is when it comes to the horrors of war.

The original trilogy, which was released from 2008 to 2010, satirically reflected America's stagnant economy and the explosive popularity of reality competitions. "The Hunger Games" referred to the "game" at the trilogy's center, a barbaric yearly ritual in which 24 children (12 girls, 12 boys) were chosen from a dozen oppressed districts and forced to compete to the death in front of the wealthy masses. The last child standing won a year's worth of extra food for his or her district. Told from the point of view of Katniss, a courageous, big-hearted girl from the poverty-stricken District 12, the story becomes one of revolution. Katniss wins her competition without sacrificing herself and goes on to lead a rebel army against the corrupt President Coriolanus Snow.

The movie adaptations made Jennifer Lawrence, who played Katniss, a household name, and the four films (the final novel was released as two movies) brought in well over a billion dollars combined domestically at the box office. Collins' heroine, at least for Young Adult novels, was ahead of her time. One can see Katniss' influence most directly in "Star Wars" heroine Rey, another nobody from nowhere who upends an entire world order. The success of "The Hunger Games" highlighted an untapped female audience for science fiction and ended up influencing everything from the "Divergent" movies to "Doctor Who's" current iteration. It was also a series embraced both by liberals and conservatives. Some people read it as a parable about government overreach — others saw in it a warning about growing income inequality.

The new story brings a twist, albeit perhaps a predictable one. "The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes" focuses on a male antihero, Katniss' nemesis, Snow. Snow grew up in genteel poverty in the aftermath of the war years, using his assumed privilege to bully and charm his way to power. The novel suffers from an overlong final third, and one can see Collins is writing with the assumption of a Hollywood marketing franchise. (The book includes enough songs to fill an original soundtrack companion album, for example.) The plot is interesting, but Collins' sympathy toward Snow is a little unnerving.

Some of the exposition will feel familiar — once again, there is a plucky heroine from District 12, named Lucy Gray, who turns the games upside down. But whereas Katniss' celebrity was an accident, Lucy is a natural in the spotlight. These being only the 10th annual Hunger Games, Lucy finds herself starring in a snuff show that hasn't yet recognized its reality TV potential. Her revolution isn't one to bring down those in power but to show how they can reinforce it.

But it's also not her story. Snow has fooled himself into thinking he loves Lucy, his mentee, but, really, she is just a means to an end. Even as she works to publicize the plight of her people in District 12, Snow is taking notes on how to use her showmanship to sell the Hunger Games to the masses. Another man takes credit (and power) by stealing and repurposing a woman's ideas. And yet we, as the reader, are supposed to sympathize with the man.

Collins' choice to make Snow her main character is a curious one. It feels driven by the movies, in which Donald Sutherland's acting and the films' third-person viewpoint made the president a primary character. (In the books, we see the world through Katniss' eyes, with Snow remaining a shadowy evil until near the trilogy's end.)

In this new work, Snow is a literal "poor little rich boy"; his family reads like a character out of the British aristocracy in the years following World War I. Many of the descriptions are given over to his constant worries about food and the family's penny pinching. Every interaction is filled with anxious thoughts as he fights to keep up his charming facade.

Moving from a female lead to the standard male antihero was always going to feel like a step backward.

Moving from a female lead to the standard male antihero was always going to feel like a step backward. But this disappointment is compounded by the equally predictable fantasy trope of the man who is "saved" in his time of need by a magical love interest. Snow's need for order and his belief in the Hunger Games as a necessary way of controlling the masses are supposed to be explained by his traumatic childhood. But is a hero whose biggest fear is that people will realize he's poor really what we need (or want) right now?

Even if the book didn't arrive in the middle of a pandemic highlighting the deep divide between the haves and the have-nots, American society has been shifting leftward for years. Union membership is on the rise. There's a push for universal health care (and even talk of universal income). And yet, "The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes" believes audiences want to read more success stories about clever patriarchal figures.

Katniss was a canary in a coal mine for a new focus on progressive, often-female heroines. If "The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes" heralds a shift back toward Trumpian figures, it's a disappointing one. Dystopian fantasy can center male protagonists without making excuses for the patriarchy. Sadly, this does not.