“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” co-writer Michael Lesslie praised Suzanne Collins’s prequel novel as a firm foundation for the film adaptation that arrived in theaters just before Thanksgiving, but certainly found areas to expand upon the story of Collins’ best-selling book — including an abandoned idea for an opening sequence.
During a spoiler-filled interview with TheWrap about the film (you’ve been warned), Lesslie revealed that the opening sequence almost began with a shot of a District 12 rebel luring Coriolanus Snow’s dad into the forest only to shoot him, in a moment that would have echoed during the film’s finale.
Another change from page to screen included Dr. Volumnia Gaul’s “consequential rather than consecutive” motivation to release the snakes in the arena. In the book she had always planned on introducing the “rainbow of death,” and she does so after the death of Gaius Breen, but in the film, she was prompted by the death of the then-President Ravinstill’s son Felix.
“I thought, ‘Well if you make it an attack on the emblem of Panem, then she has to respond,” Lesslie said.
The writer sat down with TheWrap after Thanksgiving to discuss details of getting Collins’ 528-page prequel book onto the big screen. He particularly delved deep into the fates of not-so-star-crossed lovers Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) and Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler).
What were the early conversations you had with Suzanne, Francis Lawrence and Nina Jacobson about the adaptation? What was crucial to nail down?
Suzanne is the genesis of everything, and one of the most important things for all of us was always preserving what she wanted, not just from the novel, but from the adaptation, and a huge amount of that was finding the right tone at the Capitol. I remember we were talking about how the Capital has to have that filthy allure of wealth. It has to be snappy and all these characters vying for each other. There’s an element of “Talented Mr. Ripley.” There’s also an element of “Succession,” like that weird kind of hyperactive status drive, and status insecurity of people with privilege. So there’s a huge amount of that, but also learning what it felt like to be young within this world and trying to be an adult. The most important thing for Suzanne was that the philosophical discourse at the center of the book as represented by each of the different characters was maintained.
So like Hobbes versus Locke versus Rousseau, like the state of nature debate, I think, making sure that each of the major narrative shifts in the adaptation could be centered around that like in the book. That was a huge thing. Then also just making it one massive movie because it’s so epic. Let’s not have delusions of grandeur here, but we were talking about “Doctor Zhivago” in terms of movies where there is a tonal shift throughout. We also talked about a sense of epic romance, but it’s also about the destruction of a romance and the corruption of a soul.
How did you navigate capturing all three parts of the long book in a film?
There’s a glut of blockbuster content out there. You can fall into the trap of a similar narrative pattern for all of [the “Hunger Games” films]. So being offered the opportunity to be a part of something that breaks that pattern — like the traditional Hunger Games model, if you look at the screenplays, certainly for the first few it’s 60 pages of build-up, 60 pages of games and then it ends. For me, some of the most interesting stuff in the movie and the novel is in that third part, because you are kind of cut loose from the narrative with which you’re familiar and suddenly you’re left with this soul kind of untethered, which is exciting.
I think everyone would say this, the transition, particularly from part two to part three, was always a challenge in part because Coriolanus’ motivation, whichever way you cut it, shifts partly. When he gets to the districts, he focuses on Lucy Gray for a while. Even if the interpretation is that he gets to the districts and still always wants to go back home, there’s part of him that commits to Lucy Gray. You spent the first two acts with this character, he’s driving towards one thing, which is making his family safe and getting back to status within the Capitol. That is a massive challenge as a screenwriter in a movie.
How did you go about making Coriolanus someone to have empathy for but also realistically chart his descent into evil?
Suzanne’s already done a lot of the work for you. There’s so much in the novel and so much in the way he set up the beginning. I love the parallels between the way he’s set up in the beginning and the way Katniss is set up. They’re looking after their family and they’re talking about food. It’s very much the day-to-day that you grapple with that first scene in the apartment. There is a weird echo of that little duck moment with Katniss in the first movie. I think that humanity and that sense of living a lie to survive, immediately for me, at least makes me empathize with him.
One of the principles that I took at least was anchoring each shift around an act of violence. You’ve got the death of Brandy, you’ve got Clemensia’s death, the moment where he killed someone but it’s kind of forced upon him because they’re chasing him down, all the way through to the end where he cold-bloodedly, preemptively murderers Highbottom with no direct threat to him, other than slightly vengeance. So I used violence as the organizing principle in these key events to shift him on each time. That was my big structural game in a way. At first, he is as horrified by the violence as we are. But part of what the Hunger Games do is inure us to violence. That’s something we’re calling out.
By the end of it, you’re desensitized to a degree and that is what happens with Coriolanus. I always loved the moment, the way Francis directed it, where he’s in The Hob the first time and he just pounds on Billy Taupe, and it’s excessive, and it doesn’t come out of nowhere. That’s a good thing for us to scale like that. We understand why he’s doing it, where he’s coming from, and it feels really important, but also it’s kind of frightening. I love that moment because I think you begin to see who he’s become and it’s because of how he’s been treated, but also how he has reacted.
Do you think he already was evil or did he turn evil?
That is a profound question. Because then do you believe that anyone is evil in any way? I’m sure some people maybe do but like, no one believes themselves to be a bad guy. No one goes “I’m a villain today.” I think all of us probably have the capacity for a degree of evil because often on the scales it’s, “Well I might be victimizing one person, but I’m doing it to help this person” and it’s about the way you give certain priorities.
Coriolanus has a justification for every single thing he does. It’s a moral justification that he sees as necessary in his life and in his mind. So I think every single one of the characters in Suzanne’s “Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” world probably has the capacity to become evil. It’s as Lucy Gray says, “It’s what you choose to do and how you choose.” And I think Coriolanus ultimately still thinks it’s the right call, and by the end thinks it’s only the inevitable call because human beings are chaotic creatures who will need control. I think he justifies selfish actions to himself.
That scene in the woods where she runs away — in the book he just kind of fires his gun into the woods but in the film he aims for Lucy Gray. What conversations went behind adapting that scene?
That sequence encapsulates the meaning of the book. It’s so important for everything. Coriolanus feels personally betrayed and not just betrayed on a romantic level — one of the lines we inserted that wasn’t from the book, I think, was when she says by the lake, “If you can trust anyone in the world, you can trust me.” At the end when he feels that he can’t trust her, it’s not just Lucy Gray who’s disappearing, it’s his whole opportunity to believe in a better world, and it has just screwed him over.
When Lucy Gray runs away, it’s anger, that’s heartbreak. And he’s shooting at that, and also if you remember, it’s not just one gun back in the cabin. She’s, I think, running back in the direction of the cabin. Even though that’s conjecture on his part. I think he sees her as dangerous, and it’s a battle for survival.
I know Tom feels this as well: It’s the battle for survival that will haunt him for the next 64 years. It’s the battle for survival that will drive him mad because she could always be out there and she represents the kind of violent chaos of all of the districts and all of humanity. I think he shoots at her because he’s afraid for his own life and because he’s heartbroken and angry that she is as bad as the rest of the world in his mind.
Was there ever a discussion about showing what happened to Lucy?
This is kind of in the weeds of the adaptation, but there were moments where we didn’t have cameras underneath in the tunnels during the games. When they go down and tunnels, Lucky says “We repurposed the security cameras.” Suzanne was always, and I think rightly, very insistent that we could only see Lucy Gray stuff if Coriolanus could see a version of it himself so we can only see what’s happening in the tunnels if Coriolanus can sort of either infer it from the camera angle of security or not. So there were versions where we had full cutaway scenes where there was no way he could have known what was happening in the tunnels like we didn’t have the cameras, but we would get to see it. And in that version, Suzanne was like, “If you do that, you have to show Lucy Gray in the end.” Because the audience has been given that perspective and we will need it and expect it. But if we are fundamentally locked in with Coriolanus and he is our POV, then you want to share his maddening mystery at the end and you definitely don’t go there, which I think is brilliantly smart.
Did Katniss descend from The Covey?
Nothing I say has any authority. Suzanne is so closely guarded. I think Lucy Gray is some sort of progenitor of Katniss and I don’t think she’s her grandma or direct lineage or anything. The Covey aren’t blood-related either they’re like a family. So I think she could be a member of the committee. I think Lucy Gray maybe set out from home and makes it out of the sort of borders of the districts, maybe goes to District 13. Maybe there are people she meets and inspires there who are people who saw these games and were inspired by her music, and who then become the kind of genesis of Katniss. Philosophically, I think Lucy Gray is Katniss’ progenitor, but I also think for me, there’s anyone who might be like Maude Ivory or someone who becomes Katniss or someone who we’ve never met but who is in the place that Lucy Gray goes.
“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is now in theaters.