with The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
(Spoiler alert: I discuss many key elements of Suzanne Collins’ novel below and may ruin many surprises if you read this before you read the book.)
I am not a big fan of prequels. Prequels, of course, are those later books or movies in a series that tell the story of what happened before the first book of the series. I find most prequels to really be sequels in disguise. Like sequels, prequels tend to retell the original story while making it bigger, raising the stakes further. But while raising the stakes makes sense when going on to the tale that comes after, it undermines the original when that bigger, wilder version of the adventure happened before. Indiana Jones’ confrontation with a big, burly swordsman in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” looses some of its punch when we discover that a couple of years earlier, he faced two even bigger, burlier swordsmen in “The Temple of Doom.”
And so, it was with some trepidation, that I picked up The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Suzanne Collins’ prequel to The Hunger Games. I loved the original book and its sequels, as well as all four movies – my daughter and I have had many conversations and debates about the themes and characters and world – and I really did not want to read about how the child Katniss Everdeen fought in some other, bigger gladitorial game years before the Hunger Games.
I need not have worried. Instead of trying to squeeze a new adventure into Katniss’ already well developed back story, Collins chooses to focus on a much less developed character: President Coriolanus Snow, the villian of the story. It is an intriguing choice given that Snow is a shadowy figure, lurking in the background, always the threat, but rarely actually appearing. What is his story? And why should we care? To answer these questions, Collins takes us way back, 64 years in fact, to the 10th annual Hunger Games when a teen-aged Coriolanus is desperately trying to salvage his family’s fortunes and carve out some sort of future for himself. Along with some of his high-school classmates, he is tapped to act as a mentor for one of the tributes to the Hunger Games, Lucy Gray, a singer from District 12. The Gamemakers have introduced the concept of mentors as a way of perhaps generating some interest in the Hunger Games, which are generally ignored, even in the Capitol. The events immediately preceding-during-after these Hunger Games turn out to be the crucial turning point in Coriolanus’s life.
This focus allows Collins to take the greatest weakness of the prequel format and turn it into a strength. We know what road Corilanus is going to choose in the end; we know who he will turn out to be. So Collins plays against this. She paints a sympathetic portrait of Coriolanus. I liked him, mostly. I found myself rooting for him to make the right choices. I wanted his growing love for Lucy Gray to work out well, even when I racked my brains for some way that it believably could. I winced when he gave in to the temptation to stab a friend in the back for his own advantage, but I took some comfort in the guilt he felt about it afterwards. More important than liking him, however, I grew to understand him. Coriolanus grew up during a horrific war and saw both his parents killed and his family’s fortune destroyed. And though Capitol won that war, it did not immediately enjoy the fruits of victory. Even ten years on, much of the city is still in ruins (think London or Moscow after World War II and the years of deprivations even the victors of that war endured.) Opportunities of any sort are rare, and the remaining members of the Snow family are constantly tettering on the edge of finaicial and social ruin. Coriolanus has seen that, all too quickly, when they are pressed, people turn brutish and violent, and the strong destroy the weak. That was the lesson of the war. That is the lesson Coriolanus learns again when he enters the arena of the Hunger Games and confronts that brutality up close. Human nature is violence and war. Or is it? Lucy Gray offers a different vision. Left on their own, away from the oppression and greed of the powerful, people are decent. Lucy Gray and her friends live of the very fringes of society, in a family that they create for themselves, each one supporting the others. Human nature is decent when given the freedom to be so. Lucy offers Coriolanus a place in this world. Corilanus wrestles with these opposing views, and in the end must decide which one is the truth.
By walking with Coriolanus through this struggle, we come to see him in a different light. Yes, the adult President Snow is powerful and autocratic, but now we can see that he is not a typical dictator, nor cardboard villian. He does not desire power for the sake of power. In truth, he does not desire power at all. Instead, he desires safety. Stability. A sense of control over the world. Power is simply the means to that end. Power allows you to control the world and keep the chaos at bay. President Snow does not oppose Katniss Everdeen because he sees her as a threat to his power and position, he opposes her because he sees her as a threat to the safety and stability of the world. In his view, she is the bringer of chaos. Which, of course, she is.
In the end, then, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, is not just another Katniss adventure, or even an excuse for another Hunger Games adventure. The book does more. It caused me to rethink the original work. To consider it from a new angle. Now I want to read a new version of the Hunger Games trilogy told from the point of view of Coriolanus Snow. How does he react when, at the end of his life, he sees another tribute from District 12 capture the hearts of the people? What does he see that leads him to fear her? Does he recall Lucy Gray inviting him to escape his brutal world and flee to something more? And how does he react when the song The Hanging Tree, which Lucy Gray wrote for him, sang to him as that invitation, is turned into an anthem of the rebellion against him and the stability of his world?
In the end, the novel has me rethinking the original books, and entices me to reread them with this new insight. What came before is not what I thought it was. A prequel that can do that is a worthwhile book.