The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ Prequel Book Explained

Editor’s Note: The following contains full spoilers for The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes book.

The Big Picture

  • The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a prequel to The Hunger Games that explores the backstory of President Coriolanus Snow and the creation of the dystopian regime.
  • The book follows Snow’s involvement in the 10th Annual Hunger Games as a student mentor, where he is paired with the female tribute from District 12, Lucy Gray Baird.
  • Filled with love, fear, and betrayal, the novel delves into the making of a monster and fills in the lore and history that fans of the franchise had long pondered over.

The worldwide phenomenon that was the teen dystopian book series The Hunger Games finally received its long-awaited prequel with author Suzanne Collins releasing The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes in May 2020. The book details the younger years of the franchises villain President Coriolanus Snow and his involvement in the 10th Annual Hunger Games as a student mentor, who is then paired with the female tribute from District 12, a folksinger named Lucy Gray Baird. Set in the rubble that was the Capitol after the Civil War that almost brought Panem to its knees, Songbirds and Snakes explores the making of a monster and the construction of a dystopian regime all through the lens of its main character, Snow. Filled with moments of love, fear, and betrayal, the novel encases so much of the lore and history fans of the franchise had pondered over for years. The YA series film adaptation is set to be released this week. It will star Tom Blyth as a young Snow and West Side Story‘s Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird. With a return to Panem just around the corner, here is a complete rundown of everything that happens in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

The Hunger Games The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes Film Poster

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

64 years before Katniss Everdeen volunteered as tribute, and decades before Coriolanus Snow became the tyrannical President of Panem. The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes follows a young Coriolanus (Tom Blyth) who is the last hope for his failing lineage, the once-proud Snow family that has fallen from grace in a post-war Capitol. With his livelihood threatened, Snow is reluctantly assigned to mentor Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a tribute from the impoverished District 12. But after Lucy Gray’s charm captivates the audience of Panem, Snow sees an opportunity to shift their fates. With everything he has worked for hanging in the balance, Snow unites with Lucy Gray to turn the odds in their favor. Battling his instincts for both good and evil, Snow sets out on a race against time to survive and reveal if he will ultimately become a songbird or a snake.

Release Date
November 17, 2023

Francis Lawrence

Rachel Zegler, Hunter Schafer, Viola Davis, Tom Blyth, Peter Dinklage, Jason Schwartzman, Burn Gorman, Fionnula Flanagan

165 minutes

When Is ‘The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ Set?

Ten years before the events of the novel marked the end of the war, when the attempted revolt against the Capitol was terminated, and the Districts were forced back into their zones. Leaders and academics came together to decide on a punishment for the rebellious Districts and formed the early Hunger Games. Since the war, the once-prosperous Snow family has been left outnumbered and destitute. A young Coriolanus Snow lives in the family’s Capitol apartment with his grandmother and his cousin Tigress. After losing both his parents to the war, Snow and his relatives live off of food rations and old possessions as the city rebuilds itself.

Who Is Lucy Gray Baird?

a couple lying on the ground

Despite his hardships, Snow performs exceedingly well in his studies at the Capitol Academy, working against his critical principal, Dean Highbottom, and Snow is chosen to be a part of the mentorship program for the upcoming 10th Annual Hunger Games. With a cash prize attached for the winning mentor, Snow sees this as his opportunity to restore his family’s wealth. However, when he learns that he has been paired with the female tribute from District 12, the poorest of Panem’s districts, Snow grows anxious. Lucy Gray Baird is a member of the traveling music group, The Covey, who was forced into the District by the war. She makes a splash in the Capitol during the reaping ceremony where she slips a snake down the back of Mayfair Lipp, the Mayor’s daughter, after Mayfair ensured Lucy would be reaped out of jealousy when Lucy catches the attention of the boy Mayfair likes.

With the tributes reaped and the arena ready, the 24 teenagers are brought to the Capitol aboard a train, one that Snow accidentally winds up on while trying to meet Lucy at the right station. When the tributes find Snow, recognizing he is a Capitol student, they ponder killing him, to which Lucy Gray reminds them that they and their families would be slaughtered. Snow’s life is spared and Snow alongside the tributes are dropped off at the old zoo where the tributes are to be held until the games. Acting as an early model of the Tribute Center, the zoo allows the Capitol to keep the tributes caged and starved, and also allows Capitol citizens to view them. Worried that his tribute will grow too weak if kept starved, Snow begins sneaking food from the Academy to give to Lucy, which spawns a sense of trust between the pair. Other tributes take notice of this and begin quietly feeding their tributes, including Snow’s peer Sejanus Plinth, a District sympathizer whose father bought his family’s way into the Capitol from District 2 after the war. Noticing the interest the public has taken in viewing the tributes, Snow and Lucy cook up a scheme involving Lucy singing for the citizens to gain popularity.

Image via Lionsgate

The buzz surrounding Lucy and the games is sidelined by the news that Snow’s classmate and fellow mentor Arachne Crane was murdered by her tribute after she taunted them with food. With his peers devastated by the loss, including that of his essay partner Clemensia, Snow is forced to write a paper about additions to the games on his own. Snow presents his essay where he suggests a betting and sponsorship program that would allow Capitol citizens to support their favorite tributes to the Head Game Maker Volumnia Gaul, an idea that would later become instrumental in the modern games. Suspecting Snow had been the sole contributor to the paper, Gaul drops the essay into a tank of genetically modified snakes designed for the arena (keep these snakes in mind!).

As Snow retrieves the pages, the snakes seem uninterested, but when Clemensia lowers her hands, the snakes bite at her arms. Realizing that the snakes could identify his scent on the pages and not his classmate, Snow knows he’s been caught and Clemensia is taken to the hospital. Soon enough, the countdown is on to the games, and Snow and Lucy Gray continue to dazzle the Capitol with Lucy’s flare and performances. All the excitement that the pair had generated since the zoo is quickly overtaken by unexpected bombs that go off during the tour of the arena, killing several tributes and mentors alike. With the attention of the Capitol and the Game Makers turned to the bombing, Lucy briefly considers escaping but abandons the idea to help an injured Snow. Despite another hurdle, the games begin with most tributes dying quickly of starvation, sickness, and weakness. Knowing other remaining tributes are bigger than herself, Lucy opts to hide in dark spots across the arena.

Who Wins the Hunger Games in ‘The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’?

Sejanus, the previously mentioned District sympathizer with a strong distaste for the games, enters the arena in protest against the Capitol. Snow follows after him and convinces him to leave, explaining to him that he could make more of an impact with his beliefs if he were alive. As they try to sneak out, they are attacked by a tribute and Snow is forced to kill them, making this Snow’s first act of violence. Back in the Capitol, Snow recalls the snakes that Dr. Gaul had used against Clemensia, and drops a cloth with Lucy’s scent on it into the tank allowing for the Snakes to grow accustomed to her scent.

Sure enough, the next day, the snakes are released into the arena, and while all other tributes are attacked, Lucy is left unharmed and instead surrounded by the snakes, with the reptiles slithering up her limbs and embracing her. After several days, the remaining tributes succumb to their injuries and Lucy Gray is pronounced the winner of the Games. Lucy is returned to her District, and while attending an Academy party for the event, Snow is cornered by Game Makers presenting damning evidence that Snow aided his tribute by feeding her and taming the snakes. Snow is forced to become a Peacekeeper in District 12, far from the retribution he had pined for.

What Happens to Snow and Lucy After the Hunger Games?

Image via Lionsgate

Arriving in District 12 a failure, Snow is comforted by reuniting with Lucy, and the pair confront their growing feelings for each other. Snow comes to understand Lucy better and her wild and defiant nature, and grows empathetic towards the Districts. It’s not long into his stay, however, that Snow discovers that Sejanus, who was also made a Peacekeeper in 12, is plotting to help District residents escape to territory in the North believed to be out of Panem’s control. Bearing in mind his risked reputation in the Capitol, Snow secretly records the evidence using a Jabberyjay that he sends back to Dr. Gaul. Sejanus continues working on the plot until a conversation between him and a fellow rebel named Spruce is walked in on by the Mayor’s daughter and another citizen.

Snow and Lucy notice the situation nearby and, knowing this would risk the safety of the plot, Snow and Spruce shoot the intruders and bury the remains. These actions however seem fruitless, as only days later Spruce dies from suspicious injuries and Sejanus is hung for treason, leaving Snow and Lucy as the remaining witnesses to the murders. In the wake of the growing chaos and uncertainty, Lucy tells Snow she is going to leave for the North anyway, and despite having been offered a position in the Officers Training Academy in District 2 for his information on Sejanus, Snow decides to join Lucy in her escape.

As the couple journeys to the North, Snow accidentally stumbles upon the buried guns he and Spruce used to murder the Mayor’s daughter, and Snow realizes that with the evidence in hand, he could destroy any memory of his crimes and regain his family’s honor. Swayed towards betrayal, Snow struggles to cover his change of heart. Noticing his behavior, Lucy assumes Snow is planning to leave, and once Snow picks up on her own uncertainty, Lucy flees into the forest. Snow pulls out his gun and shoots into the trees hoping to kill her. Despite sending several rounds in all directions, Snow is left unsure whether she was struck or not, and with no time to waste, he disposes of the guns and makes his way back to District 12 and is then transported to the Capitol. Dr. Gaul meets with him to praise Snow for his information on Sejanus’s plot and explains that she sent Snow to 12 in the first place to come to terms with the reality of Panem’s society. Snow then accepts his position to train as an officer and is practically adopted by Sejanus’s father, who remains unaware of Snow’s involvement in his son’s death.

What Happens at the End of ‘The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’?

Rachel Zegler and Tom Blyth in 'The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes'
Image via Lionsgate

The novel’s epilogue reveals that the games were the brainchild of a young Dean Highbottom, who thought it up as a simple and cruel method for a school project with Snow’s father Crausses. Crausses would then go on to present the idea to Dr. Gaul, ultimately making the games a reality without Highbottom’s knowledge. Highbottom remains opposed to the games and resentful towards the Snow family. Growing tired of Highbottom’s treatment towards him, Snow decides to slip poison into the Dean’s drugs, killing him, beginning Snow’s lifelong signature of poisoning his enemies. Snow goes on to become a Game Maker and implement his own ideas into the games. Either dying that day in the forest or escaping Panem, Lucy Gray is never seen again.

In the upcoming movie, besides the casting for Snow and Lucy, Dean Highbottom is played by Peter Dinklage and named Casca, Dr. Gaul is played by Viola Davis, and Hunter Schafer is Snow’s cousin Tigress. The film has been getting high praise, and has been called the best of the Hunger Games movies, with special praise being given to the supporting characters. While trailers and early reviews seem to hint that the movie follows the book pretty closely, time will tell if there are any major deviations from Collins’ original novel.

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes comes to theaters November 17, 2023.

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