It is no small feat to tell a story with a foregone conclusion. After all, much of what makes a story engaging is the anticipation of what happens next. In the context of prequels and backstories, it is a challenge to create a compelling character when their ultimate fate is already known to the reader.
Suzanne Collins confronted this challenge in her book (and the subsequent movie adaptation) A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. The story, set 65 years prior to the events of the Hunger Games trilogy, explores the evolution of Coriolanus Snow, the eventual dictator of Panem. In Songbirds and Snakes, Collins faces the literary rock and hard place: write Snow as too ruthless a character and he makes for a bad protagonist. Write him as too sympathetic and it renders his eventual downfall as someone disjointed or tone deaf. This balancing act winds up being exactly what makes the book so compulsively readable.
Whenever a movie adaptation comes from the literary world, I try to read the book before seeing the film. It is a kind of “right of first refusal” for my imagination. There are quintessential movie portrayals that define the reading experience after the fact: Emma Watson will always be Hermione Granger, even in my own visual retellings of the written story. But bef0re I let the actors do that for Collins’ latest work, I wanted to imagine what she wrote for myself.
At times, the book felt like a bit of a slog. I would guess that if Collins had her druthers, this might have been a trilogy all its own, with significant shifts in tone and setting during the different sections. This makes the film adaptation all the more intriguing, because the pacing of a movie can feel so different than the written version. But what makes this book thrive is Collins’ ability to slip in the mental gymnastics Snow goes through in each phase of the story. Having been through his own experiences of trauma, his patterns of angst, jealousy, doubt, and fear inspire the perfect balance of compassion and payoff for the reader. The penultimate chapter is particularly masterful at conveying this idea: you can feel his psychology shifting as he ponders what he wants his future to be. But along the way, it is easy to see how he gets from the sympathetic character we have invested in for the past 450 pages, culminating in a fall from grace that leaves readers justifiably sad for the investment they’ve made. Knowing his ultimate fate does little to assuage the difficulty of watching it happen inside his head.
Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of adding on to closed narratives. Pirates of the Caribbean was a masterful trilogy, and the fourth installment just felt like a cash grab. Die Hard was a thrilling franchise before a new generation tried to revitalize the character in a new age. In most cases, these amended stories are better off left unwritten, and we would all benefit from getting to see something new from the creative minds that almost seem to be stagnated by their return to the familiar. But in this case, Collins returns to remind us why she so thoroughly earned our attention in the first place, and brings a fitting reminder that monsters aren’t born; they are created.