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'Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes' promises a 'new version' of Panem in 'Hunger Games' prequel

The games will officially begin on Nov. 17, 2023.

Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird and Tom Blyth as Coriolanus Snow in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (2023).

After four blockbuster films and over $3 billion at the global box office, there was no way Lionsgate was going to let the Hunger Games franchise go quietly into the night.

Thankfully, series author Suzanne Collins had just the thing — The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes — a 500-page prequel novel about an 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow, the man who would one day rule Panem with an iron fist before losing it all to the fiery Katniss Everdeen. Before he seized the presidency of this dystopian autocracy, however, Snow was a poor teenager, desperately working to restore glory to his family name as a mentor to one of the tributes selected to compete in the Tenth Annual Hunger Games.

Ballad is scheduled to hit theaters next year by way of a live-action movie helmed by Hunger Games filmmaking veteran, Francis Lawrence. Tom Blyth (The Gilded Age) has been cast as the adolescent Snow, while Rachel Zegler (one of the breakout stars featured in Steven Spielberg's West Side Story) takes on the role of Lucy Gray Baird, an enigmatic tribute from District 12 (the impoverished mining community that will birth Katniss 64 years in the future), who throws the future dictator for a loop.

Speaking to Vanity Fair, Lawrence (who is also a producer) described the adaptation as being "very much a story about love," referring to Snow's growing affections for a girl that threatens to ruin his grand ambitions. "Lucy Gray is the anti-Katniss,” the director explained. “She’s a musician, she’s a performer, she’s a charmer…. Snow has never met a girl like this before."

The filmmaker later concluded that the goal is to provide audiences with a new side of the infamous literary antagonist. “As much as we may hate [Snow] in the later movies, to see that he is a real human being…there is something really satisfying about that."

Since Ballad takes place in a period of relative calm and prosperity (at the expense of all the other districts, of course), the creative team had an exciting opportunity to deliver a "new version" of Panem. “We ... get to remake District 12, remake all of the Capitol, and a brand-new arena," Lawrence teased. “Suzanne has done such a great job of going back into the mythology and telling a story about the creation of the world. You get a little background of Katniss. You will obviously get a lot of the background of Snow, the history of the Games, the history of some of the music, where songs like ‘The Hanging Tree’ actually come from."

"It’s completely different stylistically, in terms of design, character, and point-of-view,” added longtime Hunger Games producer Nina Jacobson. “To be able to show a different side of Panem at a different time in its history has been really exciting."

Written by Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) and Michael Lesslie (The Little Drummer Girl), The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes boasts a rock solid supporting cast that includes Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) as Casca Highbottom, vindictive dean of the prestigious academy attended by Snow; Viola Davis (The Suicide Squad) as Volumnia Gaul, the sadistic Head Gamemaker, Dr. Volumnia Gaul; and Jason Schwartzman (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) as Lucretius "Lucky" Flickerman, bubbly host of the 10th Annual Hunger Games and an ancestor of future host Caesar Flickerman. Hunter Schafer and Josh Andrés Rivera round out the ensemble.

Collins, Jim Miller, Tim Palen, and Mika Saito serve as executive producers, while Brad Simpson occupies the role of producer.

The games will begin when The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes opens on the big screen Nov. 17, 2023.

In the meantime, if you're suddenly in the mood for some dystopian sci-fi, check out Brave New World on Peacock.

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