Serpentine Rainbows

Serpentine Rainbows

In the prequel movie to The Hunger Games series, A Balled of Songbirds and Snakes, we are immediately brought into a Hobbesian world of all against all where Coriolanus “Coryo” Snow and his cousin scavenge for scraps of food, while bombs drop and cannibals and wild dogs roam the streets. When he gets home he learns that his father has been killed by a group of rebels. Years later the Capitol has restored authoritarian control over the continent and initiated the annual Hunger Games as punishment. We see Snow attending “The Academy”- a school for the most elite students in the Capitol. Snow is dirt poor, and nearly starving but goes to great lengths to put on airs, including bashing his own friend for being an outsider in front of the other students. The dean of The Academy is the architect of the Hunger Games. The students are given the assignment of getting the tribute children from the districts to put on a show and increase ratings for the games.

This is very likely a reference to The Academy of Plato. Like the intellectual-political elite philosophers in Plato’s Republic, the students act as architects of civilization, government, and even moral psychology for the people of Panem. The game is a performance given to the masses, like Plato’s noble lie or the shadows on Plato’s cave. It’s a system of rules that exists to maintain order. 

Snow is conflicted by several different moral motivations: 1) Getting the money to help his family survive 2) Getting prestige among his peers 3) Being a tool of propaganda for the state 4) Trying to do the “right thing” 5) Being inspired by love. Snow does what he needs to survive and win the scholarship, but he also dunks on his friend Sejanus to score social points. Snow seems to genuinely like Sejanus despite being an outsider, but he also doesn’t like Sejanus feeling sympathy toward his people- the rebels in the districts. Sejanus’ family are basically upper class race traitors. Snow is a patriotic class traitor. Despite their poverty, his grandmother sings the national anthem and Snow maintains loyalty to the political order. It this way, the film refutes Marxism and affirms fascism/ racialism. Snow gets angry at Sejanus for siding with the rebels, rightly pointing out that Sejanus has the luxury of being subversive and getting bailed out by his rich dad. This is similar to today’s leftist activists who benefit from the status quo while performatively opposing it out of self indulgent sympathy and a romantic desire for rebellion. One could argue that Snow has Stockholm syndrome- but he has no reason to hate the Capitol system. The military hierarchy is very fair to Snow, giving him the promotions he deserves. They maintain order in the district, preventing rebellions like the one that killed his father. There are strict rules but he’s able to break them within reason- which is different from the subversion of the rebels. 

Sejanus rejects the morality of the Hunger Games but benefits from it. He never had to experience hunger.

“Hunger is a weapon.”

In a state of hunger everyone is willing to kill to survive, but it goes beyond this. The film shows that the oppressed districts are just as serpentine as the Capitol elites who put on the Hunger Games. Lucy Gray says

“People aren’t so bad. Not really. It’s what the world does to them. Like all of us in the arena. I think there’s a natural goodness born into us all. No, really. You can either cross that line into evil… or not. And it’s our life’s work to stay on the right side of that line.”

Lucy thinks people are naturally like Rousseau’s noble savage who only become corrupted by society. Snow responds, “It’s not always that simple.”

“I know… I’m a victor.”

Regardless of her moral feelings, Lucy acknowledges that she is alive and others are dead because she was willing to cross that line when needed. Lucy becomes a tribute in the first place only because the mayor’s daughter hated her out of sexual jealousy. A tribute stabs a Capitol girl in the neck for taunting her. The proles step on each other to further themselves regardless of survival. 

Lucy isn’t a moralistic figure. She has a certain attitude and sass that is borderline annoying but she never becomes an obnoxious girl boss or even a figure of resentment or rebellion toward the status quo. She was originally part of a wandering group of musicians. She plays with snakes and uses them to attack her enemies. Despite being named “Gray” she wears a dress covered in colorful snakes and is called “Rainbow girl”. When we get to Dr. Gaul’s creepy laboratory she has a tank full of colorful snakes. “Is there a point to the color?” a students asks. “There’s a point to everything, Ms. Dovecote, or to nothing at all.” the doctor responds mysteriously. “I want my enemies to see a rainbow of destruction engulfing the world.” Later she releases her rainbow of destruction in the Hunger Games on Lucy. But Lucy herself is a rainbow of colorful snakes- a force of destruction that could engulf the world. 

When Lucy sings she affirms the simple beauty of life and laments her coming death. “Nothing you can take from me was ever worth keepin’” She doesn’t moralize about the injustice of the system, she’s mostly just pissed off that she got screwed over and might die. “You can kiss my ass!” She represents a primordial will to life and a form of Dionysian energy. Her singing causes people in the Capitol to invest in the games but also inspires rebellious emotions in the students. She wants Snow to abandon his life in the Capitol and live with her on the lake, where they live off the land eating fish and swamp roots called “Katniss” (the name of the girl who leads the revolution decades later). Katniss and Lucy seem to represent a rootedness to the land.

“Does she survive? Lucy Gray, in the song? The footprints?”

“Maybe she flew away. I’m sure she’s out there somewhere. She’s a survivor. But it’s a mystery, sweetheart.”

Lucy is described multiple times as a “mystery”. She presents a moral mystery to Snow.

The original series and in this prequal both explore how media and spectacle can be used as a force of compliance and entertainment, but also a source of mass mobilization. Katniss and Lucy walk the line between these two things while carrying this explosive potential. 

“I cheated. To save Lucy Gray from the snakes.” 

Snow supports the Capitol because at least it brings order and civilization. But he’s constantly willing to cheat and break rules to a certain extent. He becomes driven by both the need to win and a genuine love for Lucy.

“We believe that severity, violence, slavery, danger in the street and in the heart, secrecy, stoicism, tempter’s art and devilry of every kind,—that everything wicked, terrible, tyrannical, predatory, and serpentine in man, serves as well for the elevation of the human species as its opposite”– Beyond Good and Evil

Snow directly and indirectly causes the death of multiple people. When he clubs one tribute to death he says he feels powerful and his cousin beckons him to resist the darkness. The dean questions his motivations, pointing out how convenient it is that Snow’s actions will lead him to win the prize, further the interests of the Capitol, and get the girl. We don’t know what truly motivates Snow and he doesn’t seem to know himself. When he is sent to District 12 as punishment he resigns himself to a simple life with Lucy, but always puts family first when given the opportunity. Snow and Lucy find themselves in a tragic situation where their need to survive prevents them from trusting each other. 

Unlike his peers, Snow has been dragged into the world of “nature red in tooth and claw”.

“What happened in there, that’s humanity undressed. Fueled with the terror of becoming prey, see how quickly we become predator. See how quickly civilization dissapears… All your fine manners, education, background stripped away in the blink of an eye leaving a boy with a club who beats another boy to death to stay alive.”

Dr. Gaul is forcing Snow to experience survival threatening conditions so he can see people as they truly are and govern them. 

Let us acknowledge unprejudicedly how every higher civilization hitherto has ORIGINATED! Men with a still natural nature, barbarians in every terrible sense of the word, men of prey, still in possession of unbroken strength of will and desire for power, threw themselves upon weaker, more moral, more peaceful races (perhaps trading or cattle-rearing communities), or upon old mellow civilizations in which the final vital force was flickering out in brilliant fireworks of wit and depravity. At the commencement, the noble caste was always the barbarian caste: their superiority did not consist first of all in their physical, but in their psychical power—they were more COMPLETE men (which at every point also implies the same as “more complete beasts”).– Beyond Good and Evil

Dr. Gaul herself is the embodiment of this philosophy. Her hands always appear to be covered in blood. She looks like a white claw or fang covered in blood. When Lucy asks about Snow’s snobby classmate he refers to as “not my friend. She’s poison with perfect teeth.” When Gaul asks the students what the Hunger Games are for they give a Platonic answer- it serves as a punishment for the war and commemorate the- “Dull, dull, dull!” The students misunderstand the Hunger Games the same way Plato misunderstood the exploitive, animal, evil origins of civilization. Civilization-in-itself is not the end goal. Both the Hunger Games and the Civilization it represents are merely representations of the chaotic immorality and force that governs politics. Nietzsche saw Plato as being an elite who was divorced from the dirty reality. Dr. Gaul recreated the conditions of that world for Snow to experience and not have the blindness of the other decadent elites. 

Snow begins to accept this worldview. The futile and destructive behavior of the rebels puts his future potential at risk. He has to choose between living a simple life on the land with Lucy or to fulfill his lifelong dream of success in the Capitol. But Snow can’t betray Lucy. He believes in her goodness. She saved his life when he was almost killed by a terrorist bombing. His love for her doesn’t cause him to believe in the cause of the rebellion but she still represents a temptation for him to abandon civilization, the rule of the brutality of the Capitol, and his financial obligation to his family members. Snow goes from being a victim of this Malthusian/ Hobbesian world, to trying to fight the world with “goodness”, and finally to respecting and embracing this system. His love for Lucy however prevents him from doing this. Lucy is also stuck in a tragic situation. She seems to genuinely love Snow but recognizes the reality of human nature. When she was in the Hunger Games she attached herself to a stronger boy, Jessup, who helped protect her up to that point. But Jessup becomes mad with rabies and violently turns on her in his paranoia. “The world changes awful fast.” The film boils to a point of tension where both Snow and Lucy could turn on each other in order to survive, just like they did in the Hunger Games. 

Snow has to make a choice: does he believe in “goodness” or does he believe in the law of the Hunger Games? How can he believe in the goodness of Lucy when she admits that the need to survive comes first? This applies to the greater political realism problem. Snow watches a rebel get shot by his friend. “I didn’t trust him anyway” he says. You can’t have a stable society without some kind of trust of authority. Snow tells Sejanus to trust him, saying “we’re brothers” right before betraying him. The only people Snow seems to actually trust are his flesh and blood relatives and the people in his political body. He begins to be convinced by this cynical view of reality. Lucy and Snow grow suspicious of each other, both unsure if they should lean on trust, or survival instinct. The situation is ultimately inevitable and tragic.

By no longer trusting Snow, Lucy is conceding that he is right about human nature. But by conceding that, it causes Snow to lose all faith in her form of “goodness”. “I’m not made out of sugar.” she says with a smile, before leaving. Later Snow is bitten by a snake. Lucy used a snake as a weapon on the girl that screwed her over. When her ex boyfriend harasses her on stage she says “get your hands off me right now or I swear I will take a snake and I will…” This line is easily missed if viewed without subtitles. It’s a small clue that Lucy is willing to uses snakes on men that wrong her. But the extent of Lucy’s serpentine nature remains a mystery. 

Snow smells his mothers scarf- a scent he can trust. The memory of him resolves him to return to his chosen path. He’s heartbroken by Lucy but not entirely bitter or resentful. It seems like he is stuck between two Dionysian choices. He loves the wild, spontaneous, authentic beauty of the spirit of Lucy and it tempted to throw away his old responsibilities and political obligation and get lost in her musical charm. To love Lucy is to abandon the morality of exploitation of his father and the Capitol. But there is a darker Dionysian spirit that Snow can embrace which harkens him back home to Dr. Gaul. Not to fear the power that he was once a victim of, but to fully affirm it and become the greatest manifestation of it- which he always had the potential to do. 

The last scene is Snow, with blonde hair and blue eyes, looking into Capitol skyline at the towering buildings and a colossus statue of an Apollonian warrior figure. The sun is high, snow slowly trickles down, and a great rainbow lays before him. We hear future President Snow say “It’s the things we love most that destroy us”. Did Snow make the right choice? The dean tells him that this is a mystery that will drive him mad. But this is Snow’s conclusion about human nature. The Hunger Games are necessary because they remind us of who we are. The world is a constant state of war whether the districts acknowledge it or not. When there is a constant state of rebellion and people reject authoritarian morality you get constant death and anarchy. The games overtly maintain this system of morality and shows the hypocrisy of districts who want a system without exploitation. But the games still leave room for exploding Dionysian creativity. They still act as a source of cultural mass mobilization, and eventually a rebellion strong enough to tear it all down. Rather than being solemn, indignant rebels that reject the morality of the games, they can embrace and participate in the spectacle and win the hearts and minds of the decadent elite. They accept the law of nature. “See what happens when you do stuff?” the host of the games says as the gifts start to pour in. 

Lucy was a snake rainbow of primordial Dionysian destruction- an inevitable energy that Snow could not deny. It was painful for him to make the choice to kill her in his mind. Doing so killed off any remaining “goodness” or pity he had in himself. But Lucy’s spirit lives on. The mockingjays echo her voice in the trees, unaffected by Snow’s futile gunfire. He accepts his fate and goes home where his cousin tells him that he looks like his father. He is taken under the wing of the Nietzschean scientist Dr. Gaul and kills the dean of “The Academy”. Snow looked backwards and saw something great and worthy of love in Lucy and her swamp roots. Now he looks forward, and up, toward another kind of rainbow of destruction. A rainbow, but also a bridge. A bridge to the superman?  


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