Perspectives November 15, 2023
Producer Nina Jacobson on Storytelling and Resistance in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
The Hunger Games prequel explores the mechanics of totalitarian control—and why empathy is its greatest weakness.
In a poignant example of life imitating art, the three-fingered salute used by defiant Hunger Games protagonist Katniss Everdeen has become a real-world emblem of antiauthoritarian resistance, particularly of prodemocracy movements in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Myanmar. In this Q&A, Nina Jacobson, the series’s producer and a Freedom House trustee, discusses how The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes reflects today’s authoritarian challenges, the power of storytelling to inspire those standing up for democracy, and the series’s role in embodying and advocating for empathy and resistance in the face of oppression.
As both a producer of the Hunger Games series and a trustee of Freedom House, what impact do you hope The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes has on people’s awareness and understanding of authoritarian repression?
What I find so compelling about the story of The Hunger Games is how it speaks to how we view our fellow humans. Suzanne Collins was very interested in how fearmongering can make people sacrifice their freedom for security, often resulting in authoritarian control. If you are inherently fearful of your fellow humans—if you believe that, left to our own devices, we are vicious and destructive and will devour each other—you’re probably going to be more drawn to supporting or acquiring authoritarian power. On the other hand, if you believe that people are fundamentally good—or capable of choosing to be good—then you’ll be more drawn to a model of governance that protects people’s rights, liberties, and independent thinking.
At a time when democracy is being challenged around the world, I think The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is an important exploration of how a person’s life experiences, perspective, and relationships drive these choices about how to treat other people—individually but also at a societal level. We feel like we’ve gotten away with making some pretty subversive, defiant, disruptive films that entertain people and keep audiences on the edge of their seat, while also getting them to ask questions and explore tough philosophical and political themes. I hope people will leave the movie debating those big questions.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes delves into the early life of President Coriolanus Snow and his evolution from the subject of an authoritarian regime into one of its rising leaders. What do you think drives his character?
Any time you’re telling a villain’s origin story, it’s important not to excuse or forgive or apologize for them, while at the same time seeking to understand them. The opening scene of Coriolanus and Tigris as children in a war zone shows that they spent this very formative time in their lives feeling afraid of other people, feeling vulnerable, and witnessing how people will cast aside humanity and compassion to survive. We felt it was very important to include that moment in Snow’s development, and then pick up 10 years later—the war is over, and Snow just wants to put that trauma in the rearview mirror, but the Capitol wants to make sure no one ever forgets, so they keep putting on these games. But viewership is going down, because people understandably don’t enjoy watching kids forced to kill each other in an arena. I think it’s so interesting that the group tasked with making this unpalatable atrocity more watchable is a bunch of 18-year-old kids who are about to graduate from high school.
When Snow begins mentoring Lucy Gray for the games, he just wants to win, because that’s what he needs to do to survive, and she’s suspicious of him as well. When they start to find common ground and form this emotional connection, that really disrupts Snow’s strategic, Machiavellian thinking. Ultimately, the need to survive wins out for both characters, Snow gets back on his trajectory toward power, and we know where that ends up. But the fact that connecting with another human being—someone he thought he couldn’t possibly find common ground with—was so disruptive to his Machiavellian impulses is really important. It goes to show that empathy is one of the greatest threats to authoritarian control.
The film also explores the complexities of moral choices in a world that has recently slid from civil war into authoritarianism. How do you think this theme resonates with people living under authoritarian regimes today, from activists to those just trying to survive?
What I love about this material is how defiant and resistant the protagonists are. It’s difficult, and even tragic—the stronger a character’s values and ethics, the greater danger they face, yet the people at the moral center of these stories are always the resisters, the ones who are defiant and refuse to accept the status quo. Ultimately, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is the story of a young man’s ascent into darkness, but it’s also the story of people enduring, defying, and refusing to be silenced. These protagonists who stand by their ideals and refuse to just go along represent what we can aspire to, our greater hopes as a species. I hope that these films make freedom’s defenders around the world feel seen and honored for their courage and strength.
Both the original series and the prequel emphasize the use of media and entertainment as a tool for control, but Lucy Gray Baird and Katniss Everdeen’s televised rebellions show how entertainment and storytelling can inspire people to question—and even fight—the status quo. What role do you think media and storytelling play in shaping society?
First and foremost, stories are empathy machines. They put you in the shoes of people who might be very different from you—and in the case of Songbirds and Snakes, the shoes of someone you already dislike. Snow is a great villain in the original Hunger Games series, and now we’re being asked to see the world through his eyes and understand his journey. That’s the exact opposite of what the Capitol wants, which is to create separate societies and classes of people, and then get them to dehumanize each other.
This is something we see a lot of in the world right now, with illiberal leaders legitimizing violence against anyone considered “other,” which is only possible when you cease to see them as human beings. Our era is so rife with polarization, dismissal, and tribalism, which is why I think there’s never been a more important time to ask audiences to see the world through eyes different than their own. Stories—and communal storytelling—remind us of what we share.