“This is very much a story about love,” says Francis Lawrence. The sentiment may be surprising, coming from the director of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes—but there’s far more to this prequel than the Games you’re expecting. “It’s this kind of love story set in a different kind of a world in a different time,” he adds. “A very intimate love story.” He isn’t wrong.
Set roughly 64 years before the saga told in the original Hunger Games quadrilogy, the new film—based on Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins’s 2020 novel—follows Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) decades before he becomes the most powerful man in the dystopian land of Panem. Still, the future President Snow, played in the Hunger Games films by Donald Sutherland, is no less ambitious as a high school student. “He is a young man finding his way in the world, but he also makes choices that presage the man he is becoming,” producer Nina Jacobson says. Over the course of the film, he’ll find himself caught between two forces of nature: the charming Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) and the villainous Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis). “He is a shapeshifter who craves control, but is drawn to a woman who threatens everything he thought he wanted.”
That woman, Lucy Gray, adds a soft touch to the franchise’s brutal world. Much like Hunger Games heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence in the original films), she’s a tribute from District 12. Unlike Katniss, Lucy Gray hails from a group known for their close-knit, musical culture. (“It’s thrilling to hear Rachel sing,” Jacobson says.) Her relationship with Snow starts in the arena—though it quickly grows beyond what the cameras see. As shown in this exclusive first image from the film, above, she calms Snow in a way that little else in his war-torn world can.
“This is not with judgment, but Lucy Gray is the anti-Katniss,” adds Francis Lawrence. “She’s a musician, she’s a performer, she’s a charmer… Snow has never met a girl like this before.”
Because this film is set decades before Katniss was born, it delves deeper into the mythology of Panem that the original films, and novels, were built upon. Snow and his contemporaries are still reckoning with the consequences of “the dark days,” the wars that led to the Hunger Games.
“It’s completely different stylistically, in terms of design, character and point of view,” says Jacobson. “To be able to show a different side of Panem at a different time in its history has been really exciting.” Lawrence teases that production designer Uli Hanisch (The Queen’s Gambit) has been working to create a “new version” of the dystopian nation, and that many aspects of it—from the architecture to interior design—reflect the broken nature of this story’s world and characters. “We also get to remake District 12, remake all of the Capitol,” he adds, “and a brand new arena.”
Of course, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes will still have callbacks aplenty. “Suzanne has done such a great job of going back into the mythology and telling a story about the creation of the world,” says Lawrence. “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.”
“Returning to the world of The Hunger Games has been a coming home,” Jacobson adds—as well as a journey toward a greater understanding of the series’ chief villain.. “As much as we may hate [Snow] in the later movies,” says Lawrence, “to see that he is a real human being… there is something really satisfying about that.”