The Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is set 60 years before the events of the first four movies.
Which means, of course, that the familiar characters of the mostly teenage franchise weren’t born yet. All but one – Donald Sutherland’s evil President, Coriolanus Snow.
Right now Snow’s a callow youth, and the Hunger Games themselves are also a mere shadow of what they’ll become.
It’s all a bit low-rent in the Arena. Unlike the casting of the Games creators – Viola Davis and Peter Dinklage chewing the scenery as the lethal event’s showrunners.
It’s a bit depressing watching two hitherto favourite actors stooping to over-salted ham, which both Davis and Dinklage do mercilessly here.
Mind you, what else can you do when your character names are, respectively, Doctor Volumnia Gaul and Dean Casca Highbottom?
Young Snow comes from poor and hungry stock. He’s clearly a scholarship boy – like Napoleon – and has wangled a role mentoring a couple of Tributes – kids who drew the short straw and were drafted into the Hunger Games.
Since the Games – a fight to the death between 24 kids from 12 districts – are a Roman-style bloody spectacle, you’d think that Mentors would be a bit redundant.
But you clearly haven’t seen enough Survivor-type TV contests. And Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is as much about the birth of a hit TV show as it is about Snow turning bad.
This year, it’s decided to give the jaded audiences someone to root for.
From now on just as much time will be spent building a fan base for the contestants – in particular star performer Lucy Grey Baird, played by West Side Story’s Rachel Zegler.
Zegler’s superior musical chops mean she can lean into the music that always underpinned The Hunger Games.
Unlike Jennifer Lawrence who famously was terrified of singing – though it did give her rendition of “The Hanging Tree” rather a touching quality – Zegler sings like a songbird.
Snow is played by English actor Tom Blyth, who wrestles with two conflicting roles – young lover and villain in waiting.
The first Hunger Games had the benefit of one simple plot. 24 kids are chucked into a giant arena. Only one can survive.
But this one is saddled with confusing extra elements. Aside from the ‘Lessons in Showbiz’ aspect, there’s the odd-couple pairing of Snow and Lucy Grey, and the added question, should we care?
Do we want an appealing singer-songwriter to get tangled up with the Man Who Will Be Coriolanus Snow?
The best thing in the film is the music – Zegler, of course, but also some crack acoustic musicians, including the great Molly Tuttle on guitar – but it’s no substitute for Katniss Everdeen’s appealing grit and decency.
The basic idea here - watching Snow slowly turning into unsavoury slush – was never going to carry a two-and-a half hour movie, particularly to an audience hungry for the original Hunger Games.