The Hunger Games Prequel: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
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S1: Hello, I’m Sam Adams, a senior editor at Slate, and welcome to the Slate Spoiler special. Today, we’re spoiling the Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. The Hunger Games prequels set 64 years before the series begins focusing on the trilogy’s villainous Coriolanus snow in this book. Snow is the impoverished son of a once noble family, a student in the capital who becomes the mentor to a contestant in the 10th Hunger Games. He’s far from the cold blooded villain of the books in movies, but through the process of navigating the games and beyond. We see that character start to emerge. Joining me to spoil the ballot of songbirds and snakes is Slate’s book critic, Laura Miller. Hello, Laura. Hi, Sam. So let us begin. You reviewed this book for Slate and you also wrote a quite entertaining poster sort of detailing the origins of all the names in it, which we’ll probably talk about. Well, just some some of the. Yes. Although there there are a lot of them. There’s a lot of lot of extremely Latinate names in this. But let’s just start with a general overview. What did you think of the book? Is this something that people who either aren’t familiar with or don’t remember the trilogy that well will enjoy? Does that even matter?
S4: Well, when I finished it, I thought that fans of the trilogy would probably not like it, but I think that that has not proven to be the case, at least on good reads. There seems to be a really positive response to it. I have so much respect for Suzanne Collins for publishing this book because as I think a lot of people know, and many of even the genre’s fans will admit, why especially dystopian trilogy’s and series, it’s become a very formulaic genre. You know, it’s like the characters are kind of the same and the situations have certainly gimmicky distinctions, but they’re all pretty similar. And Hunger Games is definitely a huge influence on the genre. So a lot of the dystopian books that come out are patterned after Hunger Games in one way or another. And they often have a really simplistic conception of what your protagonist should be like. You know, that they have to be likable in particular ways. And this really departs from that. I mean, this is, you know, really an examination of a character and how a character is formed and how someone who is just a kind of one dimensional villain in The Hunger Games trilogy might have gotten to be that way through a mixture of, I think, both nature and nurture. I get that impression from from reading the book that that she doesn’t think it’s one or the other. And because she takes us on every single little step of how he gets to the very beginning of his villainy, he becomes understandable and in some cases kind of weirdly too easy to identify with.
S1: It’s very novelistic in a way that The Hunger Games trilogy wasn’t exactly in your review for Slate and you compared it to Bozak, which is probably a avocation that may make some people roll their eyes. But I think that that’s like I mean, I think that’s that is what she’s going for. I mean, I just before we even like getting through the book itself, like the first thing you see when you open this book, there’s a page of epigraphs, about five of them, for one thing, and they are from Thomas Hobbs, John Locke, John Jack, so Wordsworth and Mary Shelley. So she is like bringing out the big guns like novel of ideas wise here and also being very clear about the subject matter that the book’s going to address.
S4: These are all people from roughly. This is a similar historical period. Who are philosophers? Mostly. Mary Shelley is is a novelist, but she was definitely related to philosophers and moved in philosophical circles. And their debate was really, you know, does society have to be a certain way? Hobbs is famous for saying that in their natural state human beings, it’s a war of all against all or and your existence will be nasty, brutish and short in a state of nature. And then Rousseau idealized nature and thought that if children were raised in a particular way in accord with nature, they would be these sort of perfect people. So obviously, Volumnia, all the crazy mad scientist and in this book is definitely a Hobbesian person. It’s not really clear if there’s a Rousseau in character in this, but that’s what she’s going for. She’s going for this debate over what is the nature of humanity.
S1: Yeah. The nature of humanity. You mentioned that sort of a tension in the book. Or an underlying theme is whether Coriolanus Snow. Who is, I think, 16? When we meet him here. You’re still in school. But the academy in the capital. I forget if we know this in the main Hunger Games trilogy, but we at least learn or reminded did hear that he is the scion of this kind of once very wealthy, you know, successful, powerful family who is fortune was entirely wiped out during the war that The Hunger Games followed. They had a big sort of munitions empire in District 13, which is the district that got nuked that put it into the war. So they have kind of retained their title and their stature. Well, basically being penniless, close to it. And this is kind of his education at the academy in the capital is kind of his last chance to save his family from ruin. It’s a little Dickensian. Even so, he’s gotta kind of make good on this. So there’s a big question running on whether he is going to be kind of the person that he was born to be or the person that circumstances have made him. And that is a tension that runs through a number of the other characters in the story. You know, it’s the sort of, you know, classic really like elemental, basically high school philosophy issue. And that’s really what this book sort of very nakedly embraces. I don’t know if, as you said, if there’s a character who really espouses the Rousseau in idea that, you know, man is born free and yet everywhere he is in chains. But there are certainly like copious discussion of the social contract in here, which always makes me very happy. You know, a lot of it kind of plays out along that level. So there is I mean, you do get a Hunger Games in this because, you know, Susan Collins knows what people are showing up for, but it is significantly in the middle of the novel and not at the end. It’s divided into three parts, just like Volumnia goal and the actual Hunger Games, like takes up the middle of it. And then, I mean, we’ll get to the third part later. But I think, you know, the fact that she ends The Hunger Games with probably a hundred and fifty pages to go or something like that gives you a sense of what she’s going for. I wanted to ask you sort of before we get into discussing the plot, Laura, of you sort of mentioned this a little bit, what Collins is going for here, because she’s got, you know, after the authoring this incredibly successful, as you say, kind of, John, redefining the redefining trilogy. You figure she could have pretty much written anything that she wanted to. And it seems that she’s used to me that she’s using the audience, the has she has built in for the series to kind of rope people who might not otherwise want to read it into a 500 page novel about like human nature.
S4: Well, it’s really hard to to say. I mean, it feels like a question she’s genuinely interested and exploring. I don’t know how didactic or her intention was. I do feel that unlike the previous books where the sort of central conflict tends to get played out within The Hunger Games themselves, that’s less the case here, mainly because the main character is not actually a participant in The Hunger Games. Really, in a way, she’s written Hunger Games novel, but she’s also kind of got one foot out the door of the whole Hunger Games concept because it’s really how it looks from the outside rather than the inside, which is a curious choice. I don’t want to guess about what she’s trying to do, but I definitely think that she is challenging herself and her readers to sort of become interested in a less sort of easily appealing character than Katniss. And it’s very easy when you’re reading a book like the trilogy to think, oh, I would be like Katniss. But I think, you know, a lot of us would probably be like Coriolanus. And and and she’s kind of holding up a mirror in a way that I do think is challenging and what her specific intentions are. It’s it’s hard to say.
S1: Let’s talk about sort of the character of Coriolanus Snow as we meet him at the beginning of this novel. What sort of person is he? Well, we’ve kind of first encountered him here.
S4: Well, I think the important thing to remember about him is that he’s traumatized. And when Suzanne Collins wrote the original Hunger Games trilogy, one of her goals, she was working on it while the Iraq war was ongoing. Not that it’s entirely ended, but. But, you know, she was interested and sort of concerned by two big trends in the culture that young people were involved in. And one was reality TV and the other was the war. And the idea that young people are sent off to die on the business of of older people, which is, you know, kind of a very 60s idea of a way of thinking about war. And in this case, the war came to Coriolanus. He wasn’t sent off the way that Katniss was sent from her home to a foreign place to fight more or less. He and his family are the victims of a siege. And you can see the siege of Sarajevo or going for the back in history, the siege of Leningrad, which also involved like kind of incidents of cannibalism. And, you know, it was extremely desperate, but also and also the blitz. You know, there are scenes where he’s walking down the street and there are ruined buildings. There is like this particular kind of trauma that comes with being bombed that I think only people who have lived through a bombing campaign like that really understand. And I don’t think it ever really leaves people. So he feels as if he’s under assault all the time. And then also in the way that he is like a Balzac character. He’s not a young man from the provinces, but he is trying to negotiate this extremely tricky social and professional environment while concealing his weaknesses. He’s very proud of his family. He is a snob. You know, he looks down on all the people from the districts and even some of the people from the capital.
S1: And he feels very deeply the loss of of his family’s prestige, as I was reading first unconsciously and then just running with it, I found that all the imagery in my head as I was reading and Coriolanus is picking his way around the capital, which is very much not the sort of, you know, gilded, decadent pleasure palace that we know from The Hunger Games trilogy. It’s all kind of, you know, rubble strewn and bombed out on the ropes in a lot of ways. And I found it all the imagery in my head was from the Blitz and from, you know, movies about the Blitz. I guess mostly got parallels is sort of inescapable here. And he is is a huge snob, as you say. I mean, he’d been in a way, because that’s all the snows have to cling to. You know, they’re not rich. They’re not powerful. All he has is the snow name, which could very quickly ceased to mean anything as well if he fails to make good on it. Here his parents are both dead, both killed in the war. He lives with his cousin, Tigress, who, you know, later shows up in the trilogy, although we don’t know that she’s his cousin there. So that’s a little Suzanne Collins retcon here and his grandmother, who is very into Rose’s, which is one of those kind of like wink wink, because that’s one of the big associations that he has in the trilogy.
S4: And the grandma is a little bit dotty. You know, she doesn’t really have the wherewithal to understand that they are not rich anymore. So the two of them are he and his cousin, who is really like a sister to him. Spend a lot of time sort of trying to shield her from that reality.
S1: You know, one of the issues that Susan Collins has with setting up the story about correal in the snow and still kind of, you know, giving the readers what they came for is that he is a teenager, but he’s from the capital. He’s not going to be a contestant in The Hunger Games. So we kind of need a way to get into the show. So she introduces this idea that for the first and what it turns out to be, the only time they’ve had the idea to have these students in the academy be mentors to the 24 attributes for The Hunger Games. So we start with the reaping, which is the process where the one contestant from each district is chosen, and then there are each gonna be assigned one. And the reaping is what we meet the character of Lucy Gray Baird, who becomes, you know, one of the two or three most important characters in the entire story.
S4: She is selected in the televised reaping in District 12, which is where she’s from and which is Katniss is district. And then it’s clear that there’s some kind of fix that goes in. But then she sings a song. It turns out that she’s from this kind of clan of wandering troubadours, sort of. I mean, she might be our Rousso in character because she’s sort of given their druthers, they’d roam from place to place performing, you know, not having a ton of possessions and not, you know, really ruling over anybody or being very much ruled over. But at any rate, she uses her sort of. Entertainment skills. I mean, unlike Katniss, who never really wants the attention of the crowd and it’s sort of charismatic against her will, you know? Lucy is a someone who knows how to connect with an audience. And so this, I thought, found a really interesting aspect of this consideration that Collins is making at The Hunger Games, that she is thinking about the skill of sort of appealing to a crowd of strangers and how it’s seldom accidental. I mean, Lucy is good at using her talents to sort of win people over and also to persuade them of a certain kind of narrative. And so she’s she’s an entertainer, although she’s not an insincere person by any means. You know, she’s not false. Like some of the entertainers in the trilogy might be seen as being as you mentioned, Lucy Gray is part of this kind of wandering band of minstrels called The Covey.
S1: And she’s sort of nominally from District 12 or at least is chosen. This as the female tribute from there. But she, you know, will insist later on. She’s really not from District 12. Her people are really not from anywhere there. They have run between districts. They, in fact, have roamed outside of the districts, which is an area that we continue to kind of know almost nothing about. And that’s a theme that kind of runs through this whole book, whether people are, you know, where they’re born or associated, where they’re whether they kind of get to determine where they are from. So you have snow, who is born rich, and it seemed to be rich, but no longer has that riches. He’s still like a prestigious person. Or is he just, you know, another poor person, Scott slurping cabbage soup along with everyone else. Lucy Baird Gray, who is heard from District 12, but actually saying, you know, look, I’m not actually from here.
S4: This is just like where I happen to be keeping my stuff at the moment, or I think that they were sort of just assigned to District 12 because that’s where they happened to be when the districts were being formed. And now they can’t travel as freely as they used to. That’s the impression that I’ve gotten right.
S1: The third character that that applies to, the other major mover in this plot is Sargents plinth, who is a fellow student of curliness nose at the academy. He is kind of a current district citizen. He is from a family that is actually wealthy now, but they are kind of nouveau riche war profiteers. His family was smart or lucky enough to build their munitions factories in a district that wasn’t nuked by the capital. So they’re still wealthy. But so Janus doesn’t feel that he is district. He still identifies. He’s from district two. He still identifies as being from District two as that causes a lot of split loyalties, as he’s assigned The Hunger Games tribute named Marcus, who is actually not only from his district, but somebody who is his age, who he went to school with, says the genius has kind of a crisis of conscience about taking part in The Hunger Games and taking care of this tribute. Who has a, you know, 23 out of 24 chance of winding up dead?
S4: Yeah, and he just likes The Hunger Games. Even before that, though, I mean, he’s a kind of a social justice warrior type, except he’s not that much of a warrior. You know, he has a social conscience, unlike pretty much everyone else at the academy. And he feels The Hunger Games are wrong and he feels like a lot of things about the capital are wrong. The pairing of him and Coriolanus, who sort of winds up being his best friend without even really wishing to be, is that, you know, Coriolanus is in the kind of terms of the English class system. Coriolanus is shabby. Gentille, you know, he comes from a, quote, good quote or old family, but has no money. And then Sujan is a sort of this is jumped up yokel whose wealth gives him a certain amount of sway, but who is seen as just like including by Coriolanus, is seen as not really having just not really getting how to be a capital person, like not having the right ideas or manners.
S1: Yeah, I think some of his family purchased a title, but, you know.
S4: Yeah. Yeah. And when Coriolanus goes over to, say, Genisis House and Sargents, his mother serves him like pie or something in the kitchen. He both is very happy to have the pie because he does these. It’s difficult for him to get enough to eat. But at the same time, he has contempt for her because his mother would not entertain someone, a guest in the kitchen, you know, like like that she doesn’t know any better than to sort of violate this decorum. Is, you know, he looks down on her for that.
S1: Yeah. And so Janice becomes a sort of painfully earnest and sort of, you know, on the nose, you know, a bleeding heart in the course of the story. And he has, you know, one piece of dialogue that I highlighted. And this is one of those things where you’re like, all right, I’m reading like a novel that’s kind of aimed it at teenagers, is he actually says, I can’t read all the exclamation points. And he says, look, it’s just this whole Hunger Games thing is making me crazy. I mean, what are we doing putting kids in an arena to kill each other? It feels wrong on so many levels. Animals protect their young. Right. And so do we. We try to protect children. It’s built into us as human beings. Who really wants to do this? It’s unnatural. Yeah. It’s one of those where you feel like you’re not, like, necessarily in the hands of, like a hero.
S4: Yeah, I have to say, I don’t know if I’m I’m sure I’m not the only, you know, critic of mostly adult literature who when writing about this is like, you know what? Nobody would do this, right? Oh, no. And no government would do this. You know, for many of the same reasons that Cegelis lists, you know, there’s like so many downsides and no real upside to doing something like The Hunger Games and even the cultures that that she sort of borrowed from like ancient Rome with the Coliseum. It tended to be people who had been who were convicted criminals or enemies of the state, not just like children that were thrown to the wild animals in the Coliseum so that there would be this kind of plausible deniability about the justice of what was happening. So several of the things that he said in the course of the book made me think, you know, I think I might have written that about these books, that these practices are sort of insane. And. And in addition to being cruel, they’re not actually that pragmatic.
S1: So before we get to The Hunger Games themselves, I mean, is there anybody else from the academy or that context that we should sort of discuss in. Just to set the stage?
S4: Well, there are fellow students at the academy who are sort of this mentors of different contestants in the game who I think are pretty forgettable. Yeah, they all just seem hot, like these private school kids who are just, like, really focused on getting into Harvard. There’s some interesting adult characters. There’s the dean of the academy who has been credited for actually inventing The Hunger Games and who is a drug addict. Then there is voluminous Goll who sounds like somebody in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but is in fact the true creator of The Hunger Games and a mad scientist who invents like weird hybrid weaponized zable animals and and has this kind of very creepy, detached Josef Mengele quality to her that makes her really the villain of this piece.
S1: I think it’s important to note, and I wonder if this is, you know, in some respects kind of Susan Collins reaction to maybe even the movie is more than the books of the part where in presenting The Hunger Games themselves, the trilogy kind of inevitably has to kind of embrace or embody the fact that they are being presented as this kind of violent spectacle. The whole point of the books is that, you know, obviously this is bad, like it’s bad. You present the deaths of teenagers as a kind of, you know, vicarious video game where you’re just kind of watching people get killed in interesting ways. Yeah. And The Hunger Games here are very early in their existence, and they’re really very low tech and consequently much more much more brutal than we’re used to it. Effectively, what it is, is they’re just held in the ruins of this amphitheater that’s still kind of bombed from the war, possibly has some kind of unexploded ordinance just still lying around. And you just dump 24 kids into this arena and say, you know, OK, kill each other. And then one of your survived. Eventually, there is one kind of Shippen of these mutations, as they’re called, that Volumnia Gaul has been experimenting with that and have never been deployed in the past. But this is not there are these sort of weird, you know, flesh melting lasers and all the stuff that comes up in the original trilogy. This is really just, you know, hand to hand, not only like hand-to-hand combat, but it’s a thing we’re like half the people. And I think literally you have the tributes die like before we even get to the games of stuff like starvation. He’s one of the contestants who, like, dies of rabies at a point. One of them dies because the tributes are initially kept in the capital, in the monkey house at the zoo, which is itself a not so unsubtle bit of symbolism. And one of Coriolanus is tributes. He’s sort of Pinder’s this thing where he goes in and meets Lizzie Ray when she gets off the train and is like actively like taking care of her. And it’s a calculation on his part because he’s been given a tribute from this kind of shitty district who doesn’t have a good chance of winning. It’s always going to be somebody from one or two. There’s no way a tribute from 12:00 is ever going to win. So he figures, well, at least I can, like, grab myself some airtime and maybe, you know, increase my public profile. So he, you know, he starts kind of visibly taking care of her. That kind of catches the audience’s attention. So other people start following his lead. And then one of his classmates who hasn’t quite gotten the memo, brings a sandwich to her tribute and is supposedly going to feed it to them, but then keeps kind of sticking it through the bars of the monkey house, like pulling it back and sitting there, pulling it back. And then when she let her country government at the tribute grabbed the knife that UCSC cut the sandwich, slits his classmates throat, takes a bite of the sandwich before she was shot to death by peacekeepers. You know, this is not like people kind of killing it. There are a couple segments where, like there’s like a Trident and some other, like, strategy involved. But like most of the people here are dying from the stuff that, like, people would have died of in the Middle Ages. You know, it’s like starvation and tuberculosis and rabies and just kind of expiring from, like being tired and worn out and mistreated.
S4: So. Yeah, or ill. Yeah. I think what Suzanne Collins is trying to do here is also to show us the transition between The Hunger Games as a kind of spectacular execution. You know, clearly viewed as a punishment to The Hunger Games as a sort of entertainment enterprise. So another running theme in the novel is that people just don’t really want to watch The Hunger Games, you know, like people. It’s not something people want to see. And and so the viewership is down. And rather than interpreting this as maybe people just really don’t think it’s a good idea. Authorities contemplate making watching it obligatory or whatever. But clearly, by the time we get to The Hunger Games trilogy and Katniss, it has become a full fledged, very carefully engineered entertainment enterprise where she gets like these makeovers and there are these parades. And then all of the hazards in the arena are sort of carefully designed and varied. And there are different ways that the contestants are pitted against each other. That’s very intentional. And so I think she’s also trying to sort of show that the bridge between just this is very primitive, like send us your kids and her will kill them to this big show.
S1: Right. And snow plays kind of integral part sometimes by accident. But he plays a significant role in the kind of spectacular ization, The Hunger Games.
S4: Yeah. I mean, that’s always been a peculiar theme of these books and which makes them and to my mind, more fantasy novels than like a science section novel, not because they have magic in them, but because their truths are much more psychological than sort of sociological or economical or, you know, anything that you could really sense believe happening, for example. This is also true in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Everyone is aware of being watched all the time, like there’s a sense of that being videotaped and viewing videotapes is socially pervasive in a way that we might think about it now, except that it’s a surveillance state, not a camera and everybody’s hand. And so everything that Coriolanus does with Lucy Gray and the other mentors do with their tributes is filmed and broadcast. And yet the cameras themselves seem almost immaterial. They’re almost like disembodied entities, like they’re not actually that many cameramen are actual physical cameras described. And this was, I think, the first Hunger Games novel where she actually discussed where the screen was in the home of the character, because the characters are all being viewed all the time, but they don’t actually spend a life watching, watching screens themselves. You know, I was really I my ears perked up when she described where the TV was in Coriolanus, this house, and how often they watched it. But it’s it’s interesting that the characters in these books never seem to watch TV, and yet they always know what video is, the talk of the town. And there’s like this kind of big audience out there that also feels kind of disembodied. Who are they? Where are they watching? Where are these screens? Like, sometimes the characters are seeing things on screens when they’re not actually in a house and you’re equal. Are there screens everywhere? Like they can’t rebuild these rebel buildings, but yet they have screens everywhere. Like it’s Times Square. But half the buildings are red. I mean, they just it doesn’t make any sense, but it’s sort of psychically in the feeling like of a teenager who’s just being watched all the time. You can totally get it. You know, you can. And who feels like overexposed all the time for whatever reason or however realistic that is? It’s very true to that feeling, even though it makes absolutely no sense.
S1: Technologically, you’ve raised this issue in your review a little bit. I mean, I think some of that hyper self-consciousness comes, you know, as you say, from the kind of surveillance state aspect of it. It obviously comes just from the culture that we all live in now, where we are either constantly either being surveilled or, you know, presenting ourselves, you know, on social media in a very sort of self-conscious way. This novel is entirely grounded. Like we’re inside. Coriolanus has had the entire time, which is obviously not the case in the trilogy. He’s just a very kind of external villain. You know, we get like what he smells like and what he looks like, but we never know what he’s thinking.
S4: He’s physically repellent, too. He smells of blood because he has bleeding ulcers in his mouth from from poisonings. And. And that’s why he has this rose perfume. I mean, he’s like a kind of like a vampire because he smells like blood. And he also has this kind of funereal floral thing going on. So he’s like the living dead, which is interesting, because if this action in this book is set 64 more 60 plus years before The Hunger Games, he’s pretty old. And The Hunger Games trilogy.
S1: Yeah, he’s got to be in his 80s. And yeah. So, yeah, I don’t know if we knew canonically or not, but I mean, makes sense. But being inside his head really gives us access to his internal monologue and the extent to which everything he does and he’s not, you know, a villain from the beginning. But there is always something like creepy about him. I mean, he is desperate and you can maybe empathize with him to a certain extent, but you’re never like, that’s totally me, because you always you know, he is kind of a sociopath the entire time. Like, you’re always not only getting the sense, but being explicitly told through their access to the inside of his head that every time he does something, he’s thinking about how this is going to look. Should I befriend Sujan us? Will that give me a strategic advantage? Will it like, hurt me with the teachers to be too closely associated with him because he has kind of a rebellious streak and is speaking out against the Hunger Games. And even when we get and talk about the Sumba that his eventual romance with Lucy Gray bared it, you know, took me so long to not only feel that was genuine, but even kind of just like suss out, like whether that was supposed to be genuine, because everything he does is so calculated and mediated towards appearance. And that is something that you can always, like, take this too far to be like a very tiresome angle to pursue. But it does. I mean, I very much wonder, like if Suzanne Collins would have written this character that way if she hadn’t been writing this novel, so to speak, in the age of Donald Trump or of Instagram, really, you know, like I think that she’s definitely speaking to.
S4: The feeling that young people have that they have to perform their identities in a way that will be, you know, meticulously passed by their peers and strangers. I mean, there’s both the authoritarian aspect of the capital, which is real. And so some of his sort of reluctance to be associated with Sujan US kind of reminds you of stories of totalitarian rule in the Soviet Union. You know, where you might have a friend who starts to get a little bit too free in the way that he talks about the Politburo, and then you just have to disassociate yourself from that person. But I think it also has this real dimension in just what society feels like to someone that age, you know, that they are being constantly observed, constantly judged on very, very tiny things and the need to sort of create a persona, whether it feels genuine or not. And hold that persona up under every circumstance.
S1: You get to actually talk about The Hunger Games, part of this Hunger Games novel.
S4: I this it’s always my least favorite part of it.
S1: I know. I know. And I feel like I feel like I’m doing basically what Suzanne Collins did with the novel, like talking about because we have to talk about it. I will not be in. He has to go about it. But as I mentioned, this is the various sort of like, you know, bruto like not at all glamorous spectacle here. You know, what is interesting about it is this, you know, character of Lucy Baird, who is curliness his tribute seems like an extreme long shot at the beginning. She’s, you know, not, you know, an athlete or a warrior of any kind. Unlike Katniss, you know, she’s a musician. She has, you know, incredible power to woo audiences and get them on her side. And we find out in this book, you know, Coriolanus is the one who invents the idea of having viewers being able to, you know, send drones with equipment to their favorite candidates because it’s one of the few ways to kind of weaponize her charisma. It’s obviously not much use in hand-to-hand combat environment, but again, a way to get her, you know, supplies and stuff. She is, you know, not a creampuff. She’s, you know, she’s like practically a street kid. She’s very, you know, kind of wise and tough in that way. But she’s not a fighter and she’s not a killer. I mean, she does end up you know, she wins The Hunger Games. She’s got to, like, kill a few people to do it. But, you know, a couple of them, she she poison’s with rat poison that she is like smuggled out of the zoo. She has a way with snakes, which is another piece, recurring imagery in this novel. She kind of has a poisonous snake that she kind of hides in her dress and then like six on somebody, but only when they try to kill her first. It kind of contrives to, again, have her, you know, take out, so to speak, some of her competitors. But you never get a sort of. Oh, and then Katniss made an awesome shot with her bow kind of moment. And that’s like none of the killings are enjoyable. It’s like she, you know, put some rat poison in a bottle and then like a little girl drank it and died.
S4: Yeah. I mean, Susan Collins has to have been somewhat ambivalent about the action movie exploits of the original trilogy because it’s basically three books condemning the use of violence as entertainment that are basically full of entertaining violence. And so in this, it feels just more sordid, a desperate and probably a lot more like real violence in that, you know, someone’s on top of a poll and people are climbing up on the other side and then like people ally themselves and they double cross their allies. And meanwhile, there’s this ending Matic tribute who just keeps arranging the bodies of the dead tributes in this way. That seems like an obvious rebuke to the the the whole thing in this kind of obscure way. But it is never it’s never really clarified why he’s doing that. And there’s this kind of grubby, desperate quality, except for this one scene where these colored snakes are dropped and start killing everybody. But then through a trick that Coriolanus comes up with, they are not hostile to Lucy Gray. And also she sings to them and then they become like clothing for her to wear is very trippy. I was like, wow, I can’t I can’t picture what this would look like. I mean, it has to have been weird for her to see big action movies made out of these stories, which are really not really about action movie values. So I think you’re right. It is a much less. It’s a video game, eshe action movie ish. Hunger Games, it’s just more desperate and grubby.
S1: Yeah, I agree with that. And I mean, I think that is one of the interesting, interesting things about the novel, is that, you know, I sort of I guess I enjoyed it almost out of spite or somebody that is just thinking about how much people who came for came to this because they just wanted, like, more, you know, cool Hunger Games action. There’s never going to be, like, irritated and pissed off of this book. I I took some amount of, like, vicarious pleasure. I think so, yeah. So no surprise. Lucy Greybeard wins The Hunger Games. If you are reading this on a physical book, like, you know, at that point there’s a hundred and fifty patients or whatever left in the book and they’re not going to like kill one of the three main characters. But the entire section left because, as you mentioned, Coriolanus has kind of bent the rules to do this. He is like smuggled food to her. He slipped her his mother’s locket, which she used to conceal the rat poison. And because he did this whole thing with a handkerchief and her scent, which kept the snakes from attacking her, he gets caught out. So she is she wins The Hunger Games, which at this point in the process gets you nothing. You just get to live and go back to where you came from. Yeah, but because he’s cheated, he has immediately found out and sentenced to being a peacekeeper, which begins the. And the only thing he can think of to do there is to request that he be assigned to District 12, which is Lucy Gray’s district. And that begins the whole third and kind of liste, Hunger Games, the part of the story.
S4: Well, yeah, he gets sent off to District Twelve to work as a sort of sort of hard to describe. They’re not exactly the police and they’re not exactly the military, you know. Their job is simply to enforce the authority of the capital in the district. But he’s sort of going through basic training and then said Janus turns up there and he’s looking around hoping that he could see Lucy Gray because he does you know, he does feel that he’s in love with her. And then he starts to see what life is like outside the capital. And he meets the covey and he gets to know, you know, all of the the sort of characters that are part of Lucy Gray’s extended family of choice. And then ultimately, there is this sort of ballad like episode of violence. And then he and Lucy are faced with a choice. You know, she well, she doesn’t have a choice. She’s going to run away because she knows that she’s going to be blamed for for this and she wants him to run away with her. Right. And so he has to decide what he wants to do.
S1: Right. Which you mentioned. I mean, that he winds up surprisingly having his fellow peacekeeper be so Janus plinth who’ve not talked about too much because he is frankly, like I I think an incredibly boring character is important in the moral scheme, in the novel, but really just not interesting at all.
S4: Yeah. Well, he’s just very virtuous. You know, he is he makes all of the correct objections to what’s going on. He’s so clueless that he doesn’t really see what Coriolanus is really like and keeps thinking that he’s a much better person than he is, which is also true of Lucy Grey. So he must I mean, and she’s no fool. So he must be really good at hiding his intentions from people. And then so Janus gets into trouble. And that’s the other decision that Coriolanus has to make is is whether to turn to Janus and or not, which he does.
S1: So there’s a whole again, I feel like to sort of boring and Y.A. even to recount in more than about the sentence I’m about to give it. But it’s the whole thing when they get back to, well, about sort of like a semi love triangle with Lucy Grey and Skinny Billy Tope. Yeah. All the covey have last names that are colours. Yeah. Yeah. You know, who is like sort of an ex-boyfriend of hers, but also the one who got the system rigged. So like have her gear chosen for The Hunger Games in the first place. I guess his his other girlfriend is the mayor’s daughter did that, but he got knew that was going on. And so he’s kind of complicit in that. The point is really that Coriolanus is just very like kind of paranoid about this. And he’s done this whole thing where, like, he’s got transferred. It’s well, he knows Lucy Grey is gonna be so happy to see him. And and she is like, you keep getting the feeling like the other shoe is gonna drop and he’s actually going to be revealed to be this kind of creepy quasi stalker who is like Built-up all these feelings that she supposedly has for him in her head and is wrong. And that never actually happens.
S4: Well, he does. She he did save her life. Yeah.
S1: I mean, I think the only really significant part of the. Is that just that’s just kind of how his feelings for Lucy Gray kind of start to change, like he has all these fantasies of, you know, they’re going to get together and then, you know, run away together or something else. But he also has this kind of I am a snow. You know, I have to get back to the capital and be, you know, famous.
S4: And these hippies are never about leaving the capital. They’re always about regaining his position in the world and then having her to like he can get permission for her to come live in the city and she can sing in nightclubs, which apparently is not viewed as something that an Upper-Class person wouldn’t do. And they could be together, except for this one moment where the Kavi all go out to this lake and they hang out in the lake for a day. That’s like the one moment in the whole book where he suddenly he has this intimation of what a free life would be like. You know, they are clearly an emblem of freedom, you know, that they’re just having this great day in the sun by the lake, and they’re not worried about any of the things that he worries about. And he has this sort of brief window of a different life. And then, of course, when he contemplates going off with Lucy, I think that scene at the lake is there to show that he had a moment where he almost got it. But ultimately, his whole personality is organized around regaining his family’s position in the capital. That is the thing that matters the most to him of anything. And in the end, he’s willing to sacrifice hurting to get it.
S1: We should talk about how the story, you know, wraps up. But before we get to that, we haven’t really talked about the place of music and songs in this story. Obviously, the word ballad is in title of the book. And there are numerous places in the story where Lucy Gray sings a song at Pivotal Moments. And, you know, the lyrics are kind of written out in the text. And Coriolanus is puzzling over the lyrics, wondering, is this a song about me? Is this a song about Billy Tope? This is one of the things that I just kind of forgotten about. But like, the hanging tree is like a song that, you know, figures in the novels. And and it’s actually there’s a recorded version sent by Jennifer Lawrence that’s, you know, out there and everything. But so these are one of the places where he’s really kind of crazily over interpreting the stuff he likes. It’s about me is it’s about Billy when she says this is this means he loves me. This is me to run away together, my hobbies, to meet her at the tree at three a.m.. I mean, what did you make? I have my own kind of pet peeves, you know. But what I mean, what did you make of the place of these songs are obviously just lyrics because it’s a book. But we know. What did you make of the place of those in the use of those in this story?
S4: Well, I think The Hunger Games trilogy was originally published. We were actually meant to see Katniss as a kind of appellation or Ozark in character, you know, a kind of a rural working class person. And that clearly, like the city in this entire universe that she’s created is the location of false artificiality and evil. And the countryside is where the genuine and the true and the decent resides. And so there is that sort of rural urban divide in the original trilogy to a significant degree. But that feels really different in a way. I think that the songs which have this sort of quality of Scots Irish folk ballads that sort of transferred over to the U.S. is what we would call maybe folk music to her that that still represents real unmannered, you know, and sincere, like it’s a performance, but it’s it’s sincere that is now tied to these sort of roving troubadours rather than to farmers or small town people. The small town people in this are are horrid. The mayor and his daughter who set up Lucy Gray, I don’t know. I sort of perceived it as her being a little bit backed into a corner by the sort of moral geography of like the trilogy, because then in the real world, all of a sudden, these areas started to seem like they were far more toxic than the cities. And I saw it as sort of a move to sort of. Create a smaller circle of the good in in sort of like the kind of old traditional folk songs. Yes. That’s really all I saw it as.
S1: I’m glad you had all those, like, thoughts on it, because my, like, incredibly uncomplicated view. It’s just like I just don’t like it. Like, I feel like it does when, like, novels put in these like big chunks of, you know, originally written lyrics that are supposed to be sounds like you’re just, you know, even the lyrics of like great songs. I often don’t make for very good reading. And you’re just gonna read these on the page is just always. I mean, I often have to kind of go back and I forced myself to reread them because I my brain was like immediately shifts into scan mode. So and when Coriolanus is performing, they sort of like extensive exegesis on the lyrics and whether they’re about him or not, like I have to go back and, you know, close read them myself. But yeah, those are just like kind of like dead spots in the reading for me that I would just as soon skip over.
S4: Lucy Great herself is named after a Wordsworth. Yes. Ballad, which actually is weirdly like a ballad, but yet it was written on and for the page. It wasn’t actually a song that sort of peasants want around singing.
S1: Right. And because this is a wild novel like Susan Collins, not only has Lucy Grey like sing about it, Lucy Grey, but then she kind of explains there’s a whole discussion about, like, what the lyrics mean and how it’s about this girl who went wandering in the snow and, you know, her footprint, which the middle of a bridge, and that she just disappeared and no one ever knew what happened to her and where she goes, does she die, yadda, yadda, yadda. And that eventually becomes more or less how the novel ends.
S4: There are a couple of these murders towards the end and Coriolanus is responsible for one of them. And he knows that the evidence of his guilt remains somewhere in the area in the form of the gun that he used to kill the mayor’s daughter with. And so he knows that he you know, he has to leave. And then also Lucy Gray has to leave because she knows that the cover is going to be blamed for all of the carnage that’s happening back in the town. And so, you know, through the whole novel, there is this way that Coriolanus is self-interest and the sort of welfare or his alliance with Lucy Gray are on the same track. And so it’s never totally possible to separate how much his help to Lucy Gray to win The Hunger Games has to do with his real feelings for her and respect for her and love her. And how much is him trying to win this prize? That will help him get the education he needs to realise his worldly ambitions. And so it’s the same with this planned escape attempt. He has to leave because the proof of his guilt is somewhere and there’s nothing that he can do about it. You know, he has to get out of town before it’s located and his guilt is determined. And then as they are preparing to go and he sort of realises that there’s going to be a lot of hardship and discomfort in this. And he is also going to be giving up every dream he ever had in his life, which is to, you know, make the snow family and a big, illustrious, rich family. And they discover a cache of weapons that includes the weapon that incriminates him. And he’s able to destroy that. And then he realises that the only person who knows about his guilt is Lucy Gray. And all of a sudden he starts hunting Lucy Gray instead of running away with her. But she eludes him. And that’s the end. And he goes back to the city.
S1: Right. And that is one of those the more maybe the most sort of purely psychological passage in the novel where sort of, you know, she’s trying to take us through this whole kind of warped series of thoughts in his, you know, addled mind at that point where it’s like, oh, it’s great, we’re going to escape. I love her and go off together. And then he finds the gun and it’s like, oh, wait, now I can actually stay and do this. And then he starts being paranoid that she’s like she knows what he did or is out to get him somehow and is luring him into a trap and he gets bitten by a snake, which he thinks she’s controlled. And then obviously he lets off a bunch of rounds. I get to the brush and then she’s just gone. And in fact, we never find out what happened to her. You know, it’s a very like a place in the sudden setup here where, you know, he’s going to, like, murder the woman who’s, you know, getting in the way of his, you know, social progress. But I think he doesn’t want to, like, kill a woman at the end of her book. So she just kind of contrived to have her just vanish instead.
S4: Well, she was a prefigures that with the whole. Great concept with the footprints that just errant and realistically, let’s face it, Lucy Gray is going to be a lot more capable of the sort of forest she is like Katniss and that she knows her way around the wilderness in a way that he doesn’t, you know, and and there is even, I think, a part in the books where he’s like kind of can’t get over the trees in the districts because there’s not that many trees in the capital. You know, he’s not exactly an outdoorsman, and I don’t find it that implausible that she would get away. And I think she is the source of some kind of legend in the trilogy, you know, that she survived and she disappeared and nobody knows what happened to her. I also feel that by having him decide that he has to kill her instead of just saying, you know, I can’t I’m not going to come with you. I just can’t do it. I really have to wonder if he is yet. Like you say that he’s paranoid, but in a way, it’s almost as if he needs to kill the part of himself that would still want to go off with her because he would never be able to be really happy. I don’t know how realistic it is for him. And he is a pretty realistic person to think that she’s going to stay around and incriminate him when, you know, she’ll suffer from it, too. Obviously, she has no reason to want to to stick around. She could be caught and incriminate him, but that could happen if they were together. Right. It is like this sort of weird fugue state where he has to destroy the possibility of any other choice for himself. You know, because here he finally has this choice between a certain kind of freedom and happiness that is hard. And the thing that he’s thought he’s wanted all his life and I see him hunting her down as him wanting to be able to continue to tell himself that he had to do these things like there was no other choice but to follow the path that he’d pay.
S1: Right. To tie off the plot here. What follows after this is there’s a kind of quick succession of things where he has been told actually right before he’s going to run off at Lucy, that he is not only passed, but like aced this exam that he took for kind of basically officer candidate school. And he’s gonna be like fast tracked into that the next morning, which is one of the reasons why he’s like, oh, if I just get rid of this gun, I can go after, you know, Lucy Gray disappears, he goes back, gets on his little tram to go to District two for this training, and it takes him to the capital instead, where Volumnia Gall, the kind of games architect, is sitting there waiting and telling him, actually, you know, I was sort of like this thing was like all a test and I knew you were good or kind of gonna be my heir apparent all along more haha. Let me jump forward some of that. A time to an epilogue where snow is kind of, you know, more fully established in the capital. We find out that after subgenus has been hanged for taking part in this insurrectionist plot, that Karelian is kind of, you know, betrayed him to reveal now. Is his family, who are wealthy but have no children, have kind of adopted Coriolanus as their heir apparent. So he is now rich again. They saved the family apartment and and all that. And the last thing that he does in the story is he goes back to meet with Dean, Casca High Bottom, who is the head of the academy and has been kind of his nemesis this whole time for reasons that have never really been apparent. We found out at some point that he was friends with Coriolanus, his late father, but don’t really understand what happened there. And High Bottom reveals that although he is the one who came up with the idea for The Hunger Games, it was kind of as part of a joint project with Coriolanus, his father and high bottom kind of did it sort of as a joke or just like an idea to put in a paper. But he wasn’t really going to turn it in. And it was Coriolanus, his father, who turned it in and actually made it reality with Philharmonia, got.
S4: Yes. Women to see them as sort of these young students who came up with this idea that she’s really the one who said, yes, let’s do that and made it happen. Yes. And that’s why he’s a big drug addict, is because he can’t he can’t live with the fact that he has the reputation for being the father of the hungry.
S1: Rentz Coriolanus is apparently unmoved by this revelation because basically the last thing he does in the book is put some rat poison in what have high bottoms, more filling ampules, or actually it’s one I think it’s one from Sujan is that he like puts in the Trashman. He knows he’s going to fish out, but he basically, you know, poisons this guy for basically not having been nice to him. So at this point, he has gone from being a sort of reluctant you know, he’s killed a couple times in self-defense to just straight up like murdering his enemies. At this point. And then that’s his descending to the death. The last words of the novel are repeating this family motto, which used to be about perseverance. And now it’s become about something more, which is snow lands on top. And then that is. You know, seen cut to 64 years later and the beginning of The Hunger Games trilogy. So the question I wanted to wrap up with, Laura, is this project of this novel. There are, you know, a lot of them, but in a very basic sort of just straightforward level is to take this character who’s really just kind of evil’s cipher in the original trilogy and give him some backstory and psychological depth. Explain how he got this way and give him some more credence as a human being. Two very basic questions like just do you as a reader, like by that, do you kind of understand, you know, how snow came to be the way he is? By the time you’re done with this book?
S4: Yeah, I do. I would say that I do. I mean, I. I think that he has many of the characteristics of bad actors that we know from history that he has a lot of self-pity. He feels that he’s been wronged. He has a kind of situational ethics. I mean, you described him really as a sociopath, but I don’t think that he is without sort of caring feelings. He cares clearly about his family. And there are times when he seems to care even for Sajan US and and and also for Lucy Gray. It’s just that his self-interest. Always takes precedent, and the process of him becoming basically a bad guy is when he recognizes that I think that he’s just always in these sort of situations where he has to make these choices and that he feels like, well, this choice makes sense. I have to keep my home for my cousin and my grandmother. You know, he has a mixture of like genuine, understandable motivations and then sort of egotistical motivations, which are, you know, like lot of people feel that they have to sort of uphold the reputations of their families. That’s not that unusual of a feeling. And, you know, we see that slowly corrupt him over the course of the novel. I mean, the fact that he is often selfish or phoning from the very beginning of the book, I mean, I think everybody’s like that sometimes. And and that’s sort of the point of the novel, is that they’re, you know, in any one of these situations, maybe we could say, oh, yeah, I would do that. I would, you know, kiss up to the teacher. I would lie about this or that, you know. These obviously when you see Sajan as he’s just destroys his whole life by acting only in accordance with his conscience.
S1: Right. There should, in theory, be some middle ground between just being a completely, like, calculating schemer in the way that Coriolanus is and just being a sort of like bleeding heart dope genisis. But maybe that totalitarian governments do not leave much room for a third way.
S4: Well, also, it’s just it’s a lot about his goals. It’s a lot about Coriolanus, his goals and his inability to figure out. All right. Not as Jimmy does figure out what really matters to him. But the thing that kind of makes him bad ultimately is what he wants out of life.
S5: OK. On that, I think we will wrap up. So that’s our show. Subscribe to the Slate spoiler special podcast, Ft. And if you’d like to share, please wait and review it on the Apple podcast store or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have suggestions for movies or TV shows, we should spoil or if you’ve any other feedback you’d like to share. Please send it to Splinter’s. That’s Slocumb. A producer is Rosemary Bellson for Laura Miller. I’m Sam Adams. Thank you for listening.