The Rise and Fall of Snow: Why the Hunger Games prequel is good, actually

Welcome to another book essay from Robin! Thank you to Case Aiken, who receives a monthly Patron shoutout. This was originally going to be an essay comparing The Hunger Games series to the Uglies quartet, but I ended up with so much to say about each series on their own that instead this discusses just The Hunger Games trilogy and the role of its prequel, "The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes". 

Audio version at link.


This contains major spoilers for “The Hunger Games”, “Catching Fire”, “Mockingjay”, and “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes”, all by Suzanne Collins.

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins is a well-constructed series which tells a moving story about the spectacle of ritualized violence, people as symbols, and the pressures of performing allonormativity. It has its cultural place as one of the many books from the mid 2000's where a girl in a dystopian nightmare chooses between two boys. However, it does so while portraying Katniss as specifically aromantic (as well as possibly but not as obviously asexual). Over a decade after its initial release, it received a prequel from the perspective of an architect of misery and Katniss's personal nightmare: Coriolanus Snow. Before he was President Snow, he was a student trying to get a good grade by innovating methods of state-sanctioned violence. He is not a hero: "The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes" is about his slide into being the kind of person who will eventually be in charge of this violence, rather than just participating in arranging it. 

Beginning the trilogy, “The Hunger Games” follows Katniss Everdeen when she takes her sister’s place in the annual Hunger Games in Panem where twenty-four children (two from each of the twelve Districts) have to fight to the death as punishment for a rebellion seventy-four years ago. Her best friend, Gale, is left behind to take care of her mother and sister, along with his own family. The Games are broadcast live and almost anyone watching can send items to help their favorite tributes survive. Katniss and her district partner, Peeta, pretend to be in love (though Katniss begins to realize that Peeta isn't pretending), and are one of the few remaining pairs to be able to take advantage of a last-minute rule change which would allow two tributes to survive if they're from the same District. When Katniss and Peeta are the final two tributes, this rule change is dramatically revoked by the Gamemakers in an attempt to force a confrontation. Rather than try to kill each other as the Gamemakers intended, Katniss and Peeta instead attempt to simultaneously kill themselves with poisonous berries, robbing the Capitol of a winner. Giving in to pressure from the audience, the Gamemakers back down, allowing both Katniss and Peeta to survive. After the Games are over, the President of Panem, Coriolanus Snow, shows up at Katniss's home to inform her that he takes her insolence personally, seeing Katniss's actions as manipulative and deliberate, not a sincere expression of love for Peeta (like his was for her), but a cold calculation to stay alive. He also views it as an act of rebellion, especially in conjunction with other actions Katniss took towards a little girl from a different district earlier in the Games. The Hunger Games work best as Capitol propaganda and ongoing subjugation of the Districts when the people in the Districts don't have a sense of comradery or common cause with one another, but instead are stuck fighting for the survival of their own District to the detriment of the others. 

In “Catching Fire”, Katniss and Peeta are planning their wedding as a spectacle for the Capitol, when they are suddenly put back in the Arena for the seventy-fifth Hunger Games. This time, all the contestants are previous winners of the Games, a status which was supposed to make them safe but instead has been turned against them. During the actual event, some of the other tributes team up with Katniss and Peeta for their mutual survival. Unbeknownst to either of them, this was part of a broader plan between some of the former tributes to escape the Games entirely and join a rebellion. The plan works, kind of, allowing a few tributes to escape and take Katniss with them, but Peeta is captured by the Capitol in the confusion. In retaliation, District Twelve is firebombed and destroyed, with the few survivors (including Gale, and Katniss's mother and sister) fleeing to District Thirteen. 

In “Mockingjay”, Katniss, her family, and Gale are with the District Thirteen rebels. They finally manage to rescue Peeta, but his mind has been twisted by the Capitol’s tortures. Katniss is the symbol of the revolution, with a lot of impact but not a lot of personal power. The rebels need what she represents more than they need her as an actual person, and much of the third book is spent grappling with what that means and how to leverage her influence to make things better for as many people as she can. Throughout, Katniss is haunted by the sight and scent of the roses which surround President Snow. He taunts her with roses left in places she's sure to travel with the rebels (such as her old home in District Twelve). Towards the end of the fighting, in a moment that breaks Katniss and destroys the Capitol's fighting spirit, many are killed in a two-stage bomb drop which kills both a group of Capitol children and the Rebel medics who rush in to render aid after the first explosion. Among them was Prim, Katniss's sister, the one whose place she took originally in the Games. In the end, when the Capitol has finally been defeated and President Snow captured, the President of the rebels asks the remaining former tributes to vote on whether to install what would amount to a new version of the Hunger Games, this time to punish the Capitol. As part of this, Katniss is supposed to shoot President Snow in a ceremony. Still distraught over the death of her sister, and realizing that the rebel President isn't an improvement over the Capitol, Katniss agrees as a ruse, then kills the President of the rebels instead. Capitol President Snow dies in the resulting chaos, whether this is by murder or simply ill health is left ambiguous. Snow has been an unrelenting specter of misery to Katniss, repeatedly forcing a choice between her happiness and the survival of everyone she loves, and then he's just... gone. Returned to District Twelve by the rebels (who are quite understandably nervous since she killed their President), Katniss has to figure out how to live the rest of her life now that her sister is dead, the war is over, and the Games are no more. During her initial recovery, Gale left for another District, assuming (possibly correctly) that Katniss would connect him too strongly to Prim's death to want him around. His departure changes the nature of her choice, removing the possibility of any moment where she chooses between Gale and Peeta now that President Snow can't hurt her anymore. In the end, she makes a life with Peeta, the one who stayed, rather than trying to chase after Gale. 

Anyone who reads "The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes" with no prior knowledge of the main trilogy might expect a story of love conquering all, of a teenage boy softened and humanized by an intimate connection to another person. Ballad portrays, instead, the early stages of Coriolanus transforming from a land-rich money-poor aristocrat into a financially secure and socially influential architect of misery and subjugation. His introduction and antagonistic role in the original trilogy makes sense as an end point for this story, but complicates the experience of reading Ballad from his point of view. 

Ballad is the story of Lucy and Coriolanus, tribute and mentor. It reinforces the theme of songbirds as a symbol of rebellion, the precursor to Katniss the Mockingjay, while introducing a motif of snakes as sneaky poisoners, symbols of Capitol power and control. It is the story of how Coriolanus Snow, future President of Panem, got his start in the tenth Hunger Games. Not as a tribute, not yet in charge of anything, but as a mentor to Lucy Gray Baird, a girl most recently from District Twelve, the same District which would eventually be home to Katniss Everdeen. Lucy is actually a member of the Covey, a group of roving performers which seem to be a fictional version of the Romani. They make their living by performing, and used to travel before the war and the Capitol's subsequent tight controls on movement. 

Part of the strength of Ballad as a prequel is that it explains Coriolanus without trying to excuse his actions. Before he was president, he was just a boy who wanted to keep his family together in their penthouse apartment, and hide his vanished wealth from his classmates. Throughout Ballad he will (in no particular order): turn in a friend as a traitor; poison a teacher; and try to shoot his girlfriend. This is all in addition to his actions in the Games, where his every attempt to help his tribute succeed is at the cost of someone else's life. At each moment where he has some rationalization for why his actions are actually fine, there's some other character who voices an alternate, less bloodthirsty view. Lucy is the compassionate voice in many of their scenes together, but increasingly Coriolanus rationalizes how someone this wonderful could be from the Districts by using his scant knowledge of her Covey identity to try and claim that she's really a Capitol girl, not District trash at all. I should also note that he thinks of Lucy as "his" tribute long before they are able to interact outside of a life or death scenario. Before the games, he doesn't think of her as a full person, later, he thinks of her as "his girl". In order to be worth saving, she needs to reflect well on him. Her survival is his victory, epitomized by his use of his family's catchphrase, "Snow lands on top." This stands in stark contrast to his treatment of former District Two boy Sejanus Plinth, who frequently presents another view in their conversations. Despite growing up in the Capitol, Sejanus can never be Capitol enough for Coriolanus (or for many of their classmates). In their classes together, they are tasked with coming up with ways to make the Games more engaging. The very premise of the Games is so cruel that the Gamemakers face a multi-part challenge: ensuring the Capitol citizens feel like the Districts are being justly punished; incentivizing the District members to watch; and making the whole thing sustainable so the punishment can continue. This is challenged by the reality that as time goes on, the Capitol citizens won't automatically continue to feel that the horror of the war justifies this current slaughter, the Districts don't want to tune in just to see their children kill other children before dying, and the tributes have no incentive to perform well if chosen. Coriolanus is responsible for innovating the system which fixes all three of these problems: allowing viewers ("sponsors") to pay to send supplies and gifts to the tributes they favor; allowing gambling on various aspects of the outcome; and instituting a year-long reward of food and supplies for the winner's District. Now the Capitol citizens have a reason to watch, and the Districts have a small sense of agency in what is otherwise a deeply cruel and arbitrary system. These changes in perception and increased illusion of agency in turn provide incentives to win within the system rather than tearing it down, and Coriolanus is the one who came up with them.

The only times when Coriolanus is the most sympathetic character in the room are when he's alone with Dr. Gaul, the head Gamemaker. She's a eugenicist who mutates people and creatures to be used as devices in the Games and elsewhere. She makes Coriolanus feel complicit for permanently injuring one of his classmates. He wrote an essay that should have been a group project, and Dr. Gaul used a tank of snakes to punish the classmate for not having handled the paper. The snakes bite the girl, and their venom slowly disfigures her, turning a tiny lie into the justification for grievous bodily harm. This is consistent with her eagerness to design games meant to punish children who can barely even remember the war between the Capitol and the Districts. Instead of learning "Dr. Gaul is a killer and doesn't value human life" or "someone who could trick a child into dying in front of them is terrible and not a good role model", or any of a dozen similar lessons about eugenics as a terrible foundation for ethical behavior, Coriolanus instead learns "I can protect specific people from the snakes". He is once again, trying to win within the system, rather than questioning whether the system should exist at all. He gives the snakes a sample of Lucy's scent, which eventually leads to her winning the Games when the snakes are released in the Arena. They kill the few remaining tributes, sparing Lucy because her scent was familiar. Lucy is singing when it happens, as she had done during several other points before and during the Games, and most people assume that her voice is what allowed her to survive without being bitten.

As the real reason for Lucy's survival was obvious to Dr. Gaul, Coriolanus is sent to be a Peacekeeper in District Twelve, told that he will be stuck there for at least a decade. While he is distressed at the prospect, this allows him to reunite with Lucy and continue his attempts to romance her. Generally, when a character has a love interest, that's treated by the narrative as a humanizing feature, something which says they're not such a monster after all (either literally or figuratively). This is not the case for Lucy's effect on Coriolanus, because, while she is genuinely glad to see him when they both are in District Twelve, he is immediately jealous of Billy Teal, the Covey boy Lucy rejected before the Games. Coriolanus seems obsessed with how Lucy can improve his status, but doesn't know how to connect with the person she is apart from him. Lucy sings frequently, charming people with her voice and her talent for composing new music. Several of the songs which featured in the original trilogy appear here, sung by Lucy at some point in the Games or when she returns to District Twelve to perform with the other Covey. This is where an aspect of Coriolanus which appeared when Lucy sang in the Games becomes impossible to ignore: Coriolanus seems unable to understand song lyrics as metaphorical or representative of a general mood. He searches for the literal meaning or event behind every song Lucy composes, in turns elated and jealous when he hears himself and then Lucy’s former lover in the lyrics. He is present for the events which inspire Lucy to compose "The Hanging Tree", a macabre song which Katniss's father would sing for her decades later. Part of the lyrics are based on an event where a man being hanged calls out for his love to flee, but the later verses veer away from the real scene into something more metaphorical, where the hanged man wants his lover to die on the hanging tree with him. It’s haunting and sad, the kind of thing which would appeal to those living under oppression even once the memory of this specific incident fades. Coriolanus understands the first verse for its literal portrayal of this event he happened to witness, but becomes convinced by the end of Lucy’s rendition that this is yet another song about Billy. He hopes that this will be the last "Billy song" Lucy sings, wanting himself to be the only boy in her lyrics.

Coriolanus’s stint as Peacekeeper in District Twelve puts him back into contact with Sejanus, who is being similarly punished for some of his actions during the Games. When Coriolanus gets proof that Sejanus is working with the rebels, he leaves it where Dr. Gaul is sure to find it but doesn't specifically send it, leaving it up to chance whether Sejanus will be found out. It's a cowardly attempt to straddle the fence between turning Sejanus in and avoiding culpability for whatever punishment ensues. Coriolanus later stumbles onto Billy and Sejanus working with another boy to obtain weapons for a rebellion. Before he can decide whether to turn them in right then or go along with it, they are discovered by the Mayor’s daughter (another of Billy’s lovers), and Coriolanus shoots her in the confusion. Lucy witnesses this moment, but Coriolanus covers for her, and Billy is killed too. The mysterious fourth boy escapes with the weapons, including the gun Coriolanus just used to kill the girl. Soon after, Sejanus is executed for treason, and Coriolanus suspects that it’s because of the information he left for Dr. Gaul. Lucy and Coriolanus make plans to run away together, but, right before his departure, Coriolanus gets news that he is being sent to Officer school due to his high performance in a recent exam. This means that, while he’s actively running away with Lucy, he’s still thinking over whether it would be better to be on the run with her, or to return and become an Officer among the Peacekeepers. He doesn't appear to feel any tension from failing to choose between being a force of Capitol violence and running away with his girlfriend to escape that same violence. The two of them come across some cabins by a lake. One cabin has the weapons stash, including the gun with Coriolanus’s prints, the only remaining evidence of murdering the Mayor’s daughter. During the hike there, Coriolanus lets slip to Lucy that he’s killed three people, and soon after Lucy vanishes. He immediately begins hunting her, trying to kill her, assuming that Lucy has figured out that the third death he’s responsible for is Sejanus’s. This is a wild assumption to make on the basis of her absence. It's nearly as likely that her initial disappearance was completely innocent, and that she flees for good when he starts shooting randomly. His assumption is somewhat supported by the text in the later part of the scene (because she disappears and doesn't return to him), but it’s chilling how quickly he jumps from thinking of himself as in love with Lucy and her as "his girl", to being ready to kill her because he's sure she’s figured out his secret. He liked possessing Lucy, but he felt just as connected to her when she was handed to him by the Capitol as when she chose to spend time with him in District Twelve. Because most of his halfway actions either helped the Capitol or failed to adequately aid any rebellion, his attempts at neutrality just reinforce the existing power structures. By waffling between defying the Capitol and running away with Lucy, all his non-Capitol options slowly were stripped away. In the end, Coriolanus is rewarded for refusing to declare a side. Once he tries (and probably fails) to kill Lucy, he returns to District Twelve and is sent away, not to Officer school as he was told, but to the Capitol to be Dr. Gaul’s protégé in eugenics. Someone needs to design the Games, after all. Not only does he end up back in the Capitol, but he is adopted by Sejanus's parents, who have no idea of the role he played in their son's death. With hardly another thought for Lucy and the barest flickers of sentiment over Sejanus, he gets ready for the rest of his life, continuing the Games and supporting everything they represent, preparing for his eventual goal of the Presidency. Snow lands on top.

"The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes" is the story of how someone could end up as President Snow is depicted in the original trilogy: a cynical, controlling old man who believes in the punitive goals of the Games themselves, sacrificing generations of children as punishment for a war they never experienced. By the time Katniss meets him, he has sunk decades into the mission of the Capitol and the cruelty of the Games. It's not only that as President he has gone too far to turn back now, but even when he had choices he sided with state control, orchestrating death for his own gain. Ultimately, it proves both that Katniss didn't need to fall in love in the original trilogy to be a kind and brave person, but also that not even falling in love could turn Coriolanus Snow into a better one. Katniss's choice of companion is not between Gale and Peeta themselves, but between pining after the one who left or making a life with the one who stayed. Coriolanus' choice as a young man is between precarity and stability in a world where the authoritarian state is the only kind of stability which he understands. 


Popular Posts