“The whole world is an arena.”
Such is the philosophy of those who inhabit the fictional country of Panem. The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes—the new prequel in the popular film franchise based on the novels by Suzanne Collins—might portray a fictional dystopian world, but it’s one with parallels to our current society. It may be easy for Christians to become disheartened by the state of the world, the sin and corruption in all facets of life. But, as The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes shows, grace is still present for those who are willing to extend and accept it.
The film takes place 64 years before the original Hunger Games movie and acts as the origin story for that tale’s villain, President Coriolanus Snow (here played by Tom Blyth). Coriolanus serves as the protagonist of Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, which immediately poses an interesting moral quandary. What audiences find intriguing about these villain origin stories is discovering what corrupts these characters. Ballad reveals that Coriolanus' downfall is due mostly to the seeming lack of grace in his life and his ultimate rejection when that grace does present itself.
This new film follows Coriolanus from promising Capitol student to ruthless ruler, over the course of three distinct acts. The first part, titled “The Mentor,” shows young Coriolanus attempting to win the top prize at the Capitol school he attends, called the Plinth Prize. The inciting incident occurs when the school’s dean, Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), announces that the Plinth Prize—normally given to the student with the best grades—will be awarded this year to the student who serves as the best tribute mentor in the 10th annual Hunger Games. This early act sets up the ruthlessness of the Capitol and the removal of any type of grace from this decadent society. Coriolanus is subjected to a lack of grace on behalf of the Capitol’s most sinister citizens, especially Dr. Volumnia Gaul, the Head Gamemaker, viciously played by Viola Davis. From a certain point of view, it may feel easy to blame his inevitable downfall on his circumstances. But we also see that Coriolanus plays a part in his own corruption.
Grace is still present for those who are willing to extend and accept it.
An offer of grace arrives in the person of Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), the tribute from District 12, whom Coriolanus is in charge of mentoring for the Games. While it is fair to say her character is a complex one, there is no doubt she is meant to serve as the first real sign of grace within Coriolanus' world. In one of the film’s most well-shot sequences, Lucy Gray saves Coriolanus after an explosion in the arena where the Games will be held. The camera swirls around the arena as bombs go off on every side, trapping several tributes and mentors and killing others. In slow motion, Lucy Gray runs back to free a trapped Coriolanus, her hand reaching out to take his. Despite not having truly earned her trust, he accepts the grace that is given to him. The moment is a reminder that grace, in the Christian sense, is a gift—something offered to the undeserving, “while we were still sinners.”
If the arena bombing scene reveals a beautiful picture of grace, the film’s third act, entitled “The Peacekeeper,” unpacks a scenario in which grace is rejected. (Spoilers ahead.) Banished to District 12 to train as a Peacekeeper, Coriolanus reunites with Lucy Gray, who triumphs in the Hunger Games and is sent back home. The two plan to run away together, to live a life free of tyranny and oppression. Lucy Gray tells Coriolanus: “I believe there is a natural goodness in us all. We can choose to step over that line into evil or not.” She sees the beauty and value in humanity, which could be the reason she does her best to show grace to everyone she encounters after the Games, even those who have wronged her in the past. Coriolanus' distrust of Lucy Gray and his own selfish ambitions of regaining his status in the Capitol lead to the rejection of that better life with her, however. The film’s climax in the woods of District 12 eerily warn the audience of what can happen to the man who chooses to live without grace.
The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes reminds us that grace exists even in a world as corrupt as Panem. Our real world may feel like an arena full of sin, without mercy, yet God offers grace. Titus 2:11-12 reminds us of this truth: “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age. . . ” Coriolanus Snow ultimately chooses those worldly passions, placing his ambitions above the grace that Lucy Gray embodies. The film reminds us that grace is freely accessible, even in the worst of times. All we have to do is accept it.