The initial reactions to the news that Suzanne Collins would be releasing a prequel to the Hunger Games trilogy were enthusiastic, even 12 years after The Hunger Games first came out. Then came the summary. Suddenly, fans who had been excited to get their hands on a new Hunger Games book were disappointed to learn that that book would focus on Coriolanus Snow–the infamous president of Panem–as a teenager. No would really wants to read about the teenage years of a villain, do they?
After reading the summary, I experienced my own sense of disappointment and shock. President Snow works very well as an antagonist for Katniss. He’s as well-polished as he is contemptible, and you cannot help but feel some admiration for his craftiness even as you despise what he is doing. He is, in short, just the kind of villain readers love to hate. Did the world really need a look at his formative years? Are we going to be asked to feel sorry for him? Should we feel sorry for him? And, if we do, how could that affect our reading of The Hunger Games? Despite having initial doubts myself, I ultimately concluded that I trust Suzanne Collins’ storytelling ability and I am willing to give The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes a chance.
Stories that seek to rehabilitate or simply make villains human are not totally unheard of in YA literature. Marissa Meyer’s Heartless, a look at the Queen of Hearts as a teenager, is perhaps one of the most well-known attempts. Still, I think the news that Snow would feature as a protagonist in a prequel has some fans worried that we may be asked to sympathize with a character we have come to hate–and, thus, in some sense, we will be asked to jeopardize our values or rewrite our understanding of what was happening in The Hunger Games. Being asked to rewrite your worldview can feel a little threatening–and it may seem unnecessary in this case, when no one seemed to be asking for a prequel 12 years after the fact. But I don’t think Collins is going to give us a simplistic story arc that says, “Hey, look, Snow used to be good. You should really like him now.”
Collins’ storytelling in the original Hunger Games trilogy is quite sophisticated and nuanced. The whole point of the series is that there seems to be no black-and-white in this world gone mad. Katniss, a teenager who routinely breaks the law to survive, is now being asked to kill other children and teens if she wants to see her family again. Collins tries to make Katniss as likeable as possible by making many of her kills indirect or accidental–yet the fact remains that Katniss has blood on her hands. She is transformed by the Games into something dark, something people who were not in the Games can never fully understand. Katniss, our hero, is far from being the typical savior of a dystopian world. She’s not the “good guy” fighting the “bad guys.” She’s a girl trying to survive.
I have no reason to believe that this moral complexity will be lost in a Hunger Games prequel, or even any reason to believe that we are supposed to like or cheer on teenage Snow. The summary indicates that Snow is concerned in this book with reviving the reputation of his family name by “outwitting” and “outmaneuvering” others to become a successful mentor in the Games. Snow is invested in the Games and he is invested because his personal interests are at stake. He hardly sounds like some innocent angel readers are supposed to love. Indeed, I rather suspect the real “hero,” if there can be one, will be the unnamed female tribute from District 12 whom Snow must mentor to victory–not for her sake, but for his.
I think the complexity of this book may well indeed be a result of how it resonates with the original Hunger Games trilogy. Snow, once again, is being matched with a female tribute from District 12 and being asked to use his wits to win a game that will determine his own fate. However, while the original trilogy showed us a survivor whom we could root for, a survivor who tried to hold on to whatever humanity she had left, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes seems likely to show us the reverse image: a teenager who sacrifices his soul to win the Games. I don’t think we are supposed to like Snow or even feel sorry for him. I think we are supposed to compare him to Katniss, and see how badly he loses the game, in the end.
What is the cost of survival? And are you willing to pay the price? These are the questions I think The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes will continue to ask. I trust Suzanne Collins to deliver another sophisticated and nuanced novel. And so, I will be reading the prequel.