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The Classic Poem That Helped Inspire the ‘Hunger Games’ Prequel

The Classic Poem That Helped Inspire the ‘Hunger Games’ Prequel

One of cinema’s most popular characters is based on a haunting 1799 poem by English Romantic poet William Wordsworth.

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes was a movie released in November and based on the novel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins. Both book and film are prequels to the original dystopian Hunger Games stories about Katniss Everdeen and her forced involvement in the government’s cruel “games” (in which teenagers fight to the death in an arena). The new installment tells the story of the original trilogy’s villain, Coriolanus Snow, and chronicles his teenage descent into villainy.

Collins is a thoughtful, well-read, and philosophical writer who places her new prequel in a highly philosophical framework. In an interview on the prequel, she says, “The state of nature debate of the Enlightenment period naturally lent itself to a story centered on Coriolanus Snow.” Collins weaves references to Enlightenment philosophers (such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Hobbes) and their ideas into the novel.

Coriolanus Snow himself adheres to a Hobbesian view of the world, believing that life is an arena, everyone’s in it for themselves, and people need a strong, totalitarian government to prevent total chaos. In many ways, Snow’s philosophy helps explain his tyrannical rule and the totalitarian nature of the government in the other books.

Another 18th century writer who influenced the book is William Wordsworth, one of the foremost and founding figures of literary Romanticism in England. Wordsworth wrote a series of mysterious poems about a girl named “Lucy,” including one titled “Lucy Gray,” which is quoted in Collins’s novel. On top of that, the female protagonist of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes prequel is named Lucy Gray Baird.

The title of Collins’s novel may also be an allusion to Wordsworth, as his poetry collection Lyrical Ballads (and particularly the preface thereto) was a watershed moment in the history of English literature. The collection (which includes “Lucy Gray”) marked the beginning of Romanticism in English letters, a movement that emphasized the celebration of nature and everyday subjects, the emotions of the poet and the reader, and the mystical nature of imagination and individuality.

The poem “Lucy Gray” itself is written in ballad measure, a poetic form often used for telling stories and consisting of four-line stanzas (called quatrains). In ballad measure, lines two and four are slightly shorter and rhyme (in “Lucy Gray,” though, Wordsworth adds extra rhymes). This gives the form an energetic, swinging feel, fitting for the forward momentum of a story. Thus, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes has a literal ballad as one of its main parts.

The ballad tells the story of a young girl who is sent by her father with a lantern to retrieve her mother from town during a snowstorm. The girl vanishes into the swirling whiteness, and all her parents can find of her are her tracks, leading into the middle of a bridge, where they vanish. The speaker of the poem says that some believe Lucy died in the storm, and others say she has become a native of the wild, occasionally seen singing wind-torn songs on the hills.

Yet some maintain that to this day
She is a living Child,
That you may see sweet Lucy Gray
Upon the lonesome Wild.

 

Over rough and smooth she trips along,
And never looks behind;
And sings a solitary song
That whistles in the wind.

It’s a thought-provoking and haunting image. One can imagine following the echoing song of the elusive girl, the occasional glimpse of this elfin figure through the trees, deep into the wild—perhaps becoming lost oneself. This all might place Lucy Gray within the literary trope of the femme fatale, an alluring but deadly female character (like the “Belle Dame sans Merci” of another Romantic poet, John Keats).

The poem was based on a real incident that Wordsworth learned of from his sister in which a little girl in Yorkshire became confused in a snowstorm and lost her way. Unlike in Wordsworth’s poem, the girl’s parents traced her footprints to a canal, where the body was found. Wordsworth saw the incident and “the way in which [it] was treated and the spiritualising of the character [as material for] the imaginative influences which I have endeavoured to throw over common life.”

But how is Lucy Gray Baird from Panem like the Lucy Gray of Wordsworth’s poem?

Lucy Gray Baird’s ambiguous and mysterious fate mirrors the fate of Wordsworth’s Lucy Gray. In both stories, the end makes it unclear whether the girl is alive or dead. In both stories, too, a snow is Lucy’s undoing—in one case literally, in the other, figuratively. In the film adaptation of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Lucy vanishes into the woods once she learns she can’t trust Coriolanus Snow anymore, and he remains uncertain of whether he has shot her or not. At the end of this well-crafted scene, as the camera spins dizzyingly around, we hear Lucy’s beautiful voice sifting through the woods, much like a “solitary song / That whistles in the wind.”

Neither Lucy Gray is precisely a femme fatale, but they are both ghostly figures who continue to haunt the men who knew them. In addition to “Lucy Gray,” Wordsworth wrote a handful of other poems about an enchanting and gypsy-like young girl or woman named Lucy, who had died or disappeared, but whose memory continues to haunt the poet. Similarly, Snow, who was at least half in love with Lucy Gray Baird at one point, is haunted by her in the form of his sensitivity to anything that reminds him of her (such as certain birds or certain songs) and, ultimately, in the form of Katniss, who takes after Lucy’s example in winning the Hunger Games against all odds and eventually precipitates the downfall of Snow’s empire.

Image credit: YouTube

Walker Larson
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