It would probably be fair to say that the Hunger Games movie franchise is producer Nina Jacobson’s baby. After she was fired from her role running Buena Vista Pictures for Disney in 2006, Jacobson struck out on her own with her production company, Color Force, and the original Hunger Games film was among the first that the company produced. That decision worked out pretty well, obviously.

Ahead of the release of the excellent franchise prequel, The Hunger Games: A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, I spoke with Jacobson about coming back to a franchise that she thought was over and done with, and how this prequel manages to dramatically change up the franchise formula in the best ways.

“We really thought we had told our stories and that we were done making Hunger Games movies. We did not have a big plan for any prequels or sequels,” Jacobson said. “We thought, you know, if [Hunger Games author] Suzanne [Collins] has something, a story to tell in this world, that would be great. But if she doesn’t, then we’ll just have what we had and feel lucky to have had it.”

They didn’t have to wait long after the release of Mockingjay Part 2 in 2015 for things to get moving again, though. Jacobson says they got the call from Collins in 2019 letting them know her plans for the prequel novel–set 64 years before the original book, and focusing on President Snow, the series’ main villain.

“That felt very exciting, and a little scary, especially knowing that you’re picking up a book to read about a character who you already know you hate, and the challenge of not excusing or forgiving him, but making him like emotionally accessible, allowing you to walk in his shoes and seeing the formation of the man, that moment when the boy becomes the man he will be when the forces that are pulling you in different directions when you finally have to decide who you are and what you stand for, and how torn he is, how conflicted he is, right up until the very end,” Jacobson said.

“And then finally, the moment at which he hatches as the Snow that we might recognize. It was a very rewarding experience. And it also was exciting for me to learn a lot about the origins of the games, about his history with District 12. To look at the other movies and books through new eyes based on what I learned reading this book and making this movie.”

While A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is absolutely recognizable as a Hunger Games movie, nearly all the particulars of the story are different. For one thing, the tributes are housed in the zoo and not fed or cared for–there’s none of the celebrity treatment Katniss and Peeta received. Those changes from the later status quo is emblematic of the nature of this story, as this tale is laying the groundwork for how the Hunger Games will evolve over time under Snow’s eventual leadership.

But the most important thing here is that it keeps things fresh, because these games are nothing like the ones Katniss will participate in decades later. Everything is at least a little bit different–and A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is hardly more of the same.

“One of the biggest challenges in the theatrical marketplace is the feeling of recycling, repetition,” Jacobson told me. “And we wanted a movie that felt like it could stand on its own two feet, that you could know nothing about the series, nothing about the other books or movies, and still have a rewarding experience in the theater. But we also wanted something that felt rewarding for the fans, both old and new…And so we wanted the movie to feel completely distinct, and fresh, and not like any kind of a rehash. And we also wanted it to feel of a piece and of a part, and for you to feel that it belonged in the world of these movies, and yet gave you a very different experience and a very different set of emotions.”

Among those departures from the old norm: Lucy Gray Baird, this film’s protagonist tribute, is a singer who delivers several excellent musical performances throughout the movie.

“It has music, which was also a huge departure. Music has always been very important in the movies. But we haven’t ever had a character like Lucy Gray who’s a performer who wants to get up there on stage, grab a mic, and belt it out,” Jacobson said.

On top of the compelling subject matter and change-ups from the previous movies, Jacobson thinks the time is just right for a new Hunger Games, citing a resurgence in interest from new fans now that the previous movies are streaming on Netflix.

“It’s been very exciting during these last few months to see this generation introduced to the series on Netflix. And when the series was released in its entirety on Netflix, started seeing incredible creativity being expressed from fans on TikTok, on YouTube, mashups, artwork–we have an incredible fan group. And so it’s been exciting to see both old fans coming back, and the nostalgia they feel. And then to see this next generation accessing it for the first time, coming to it having only just become familiar.”

The Hunger Games: A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes hits theaters on November 17.

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