When Suzanne Collins announced “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes,” a prequel novel to her wildly successful “Hunger Games” trilogy, many fans were surprised to hear it would center on a young Coriolanus Snow. Throughout Collins’ trilogy, Coriolanus was depicted as a villain and the president of Panem, the fictional country and setting of the novels. Fans were further dismayed to hear that “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” would follow Coriolanus as the mentor to Districts 12’s female tribute in the 10th Hunger Games.
With the release of “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” last month, many readers feared that the novel might fulfill the trope of “humanizing the villain.” However, while the novel does stray dangerously close to the trope, the focus on Coriolanus is necessary to communicate the story’s message that malice isn’t born, but rather shaped from preconceived ideas of entitlement.
The novel focuses on an 18-year-old Coriolanus who attends a prestigious Capitol secondary school known as “the Academy,” which “educated the offspring of the prominent, wealthy, and influential.” While Coriolanus’ family did at one time meet all of these qualifications, it has fallen on hard times since the war. His schoolmates still hold his former status and he aspires to regain the fortune of the Snow name. For him, the 10th Hunger Games provides an opportunity to attend university and possibly reclaim his lost fortune.
Coriolanus’ internal instincts of self-preservation were solidified when he experienced the war in the Capitol as a young child. During this time, Coriolanus witnessed surrounding horrors of hunger and violence in the streets. Due to his early experiences, Coriolanus developed a desire for retribution and to never be weak again.
His contribution as a mentor in the Hunger Games is a way for Coriolanus to participate in the war that lost his family everything — while offering him the opportunity to gain it all back. In his understanding, “Amid the violence of the Games, there was a silent agony that everyone in Panem had experienced, the desperation for enough sustenance to bring you to the following sunrise.” Still, despite this shared “silent agony,” the people of the Capitol hold a certain entitlement, viewing themselves as more deserving than their district counterparts.
There is a clear class difference between the people of the Capitol and the districts, but the difference goes deeper than money. One of Coriolanus’ classmates is a boy named Sejanus Plinth whose family was originally from District 2 but moved to the Capitol after making money from the war. Sejanus is looked down upon by Coriolanus and his classmates by virtue of his birth in the districts.
The hatred for the people of the districts is deeply ingrained. In one scene, Coriolanus’ classmates brainstorm ways to make the Hunger Games more appealing for the audience in the Capitol, and one girl comments “Who cares about these kids one way or another?” When Sejanus counters that the families might care, the girl answers back, “You mean a handful of nobodies in the districts. So what?”
The notion of “district scum” becomes complicated for Coriolanus when he realizes his romantic attraction to his tribute, Lucy Gray. His relationship with Lucy gives him the opportunity to look outside himself and to understand that the people of the districts are the same as the ones of the Capitol. The lesson goes completely over Coriolanus’ head as he begins to market Lucy Gray as “not really district” to Capitol audiences.
Many times, when a villain is given a love interest, it is to show they have goodness in them. In Coriolanus’ case, his interest in Lucy Gray makes him less sympathetic. He begins to feel an ownership over her, representing another aspect of his entitlement and need for control.
Coriolanus’ infatuation with her is tied to his need to create a better future for himself. At the end of the novel, Coriolanus’ own hunger for political power is what propels him to then risk Lucy’s life. To him, the Hunger Games is about sacrificing someone you claim to love in order to better your own future. The Hunger Games makes the “us versus them” mentality individual and personal. In Coriolanus’ understanding, his actions of selfishness are found all throughout humanity. He sees and accepts the natural order as chaos and a need for overarching power to keep control.
As stated by Collins when she first announced “The Ballad of Snake and Songbirds,” “With this book, I wanted to explore the state of nature, who we are, and what we perceive is required for our survival.”
Throughout the novel, Coriolanus approaches her question with the aid of Dr. Gaul, the scientist and head gamemaster who initially instituted the games. For Dr. Gaul, the Hunger Games were a way to control human nature. Gaul says, “The Hunger Games are a reminder of what monsters we are and how we need the Capitol to keep us from chaos.” Coriolanus accepts the games as a necessity because he believes in the need to control the chaos of human nature.
As is the point of many dystopian novels, Collins’ Panem is a commentary on the modern world. This aspect is seen in “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” in a couple of different instances. For one, it is confirmed that reaping day is set on July 4, which is the United States’ Independence Day. Later on, Coriolanus is traveling by train and sees the remnants of the United States for the first time and “wondered what the world has been like when they’d all been in their glory. Back when this had been North America, not Panem. It must have been fine. A land full of Capitols. Such a waste…”
These revelations aren’t new to fans, as Collins never hid that her novels were set in a time after the downfall of the United States. The readers feel no shock when witnessing the Statue of Liberty rising from sand. It is very plausible that the world of the districts, the Capitol and the Hunger Games was inherited from the United States.
Coriolanus’ story sheds light on the events of “The Hunger Games” trilogy. While he was not the preferred protagonist of “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes,” his story is important to tell.
Coriolanus wasn’t born evil, but it is his need to make his family’s name great again that drives him to make harmful and selfish decisions. He felt entitled to the fortune and power his family once held. In the end, his actions allow him to acquire power and become president of Panem. The Capitol prospers under his rule, as do the Hunger Games. This ending may seem frustrating to readers who wish to see his downfall, but as longtime fans pick up Coriolanus’ story, it is vital to remember the original trilogy and his eventual demise.