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Coriolanus Snow: The Villain’s Journey

(Warning: Contains spoilers for The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins)

The Hero’s Journey, as described by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, is probably the greatest influence in modern literature. Drawing from countless tales from mythology, the Bible, eastern cultures, and western literature, Campbell proposes that the hero follows a predictable pattern, as shown by the graphic below.

This narrative ark continues in nearly all modern-day animated Disney movies (including Frozen 1 & 2, The Lion King, Tangled, Toy Story 1-4, Up, etc.), the majority of comic book movies, the entire Star Wars franchise, and many modern-day dystopian works, including The Hunger Games. The journey of Katniss Everdeen through the hunger games and as the Mockingjay is undoubtedly an example of the Hero’s Journey.

After reading the prequel to The Hunger Games, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, I would argue that the villain’s journey mirrors that of the hero’s journey. The difference is perspective. In The Hunger Games, we meet President Snow, portrayed by Donald Sutherland in the film series, a powerful man with a white rose adorned on his lapel who exudes the kind of control and coldness that can chill his adversaries. In the forefront, we have the hunger games, an annual ritual in which adolescent male and female tributes are selected from all twelve districts to fight one another to the death. Amidst the pageantry, interviews, and the actual games are the overriding and tacit reminder to the districts: President Snow and the Capital of Panem have complete control over the fate of the districts.

Oftentimes when reading a dystopian novel, the question on my mind is how did the situation come to be? How did the hunger games turn into this elaborate show? Especially, how did President Snow come to embrace his villainy? He does so unapologetically, embracing the proverbial dark side in his pursuit of power and control.

As the prequel to The Hunger Games trilogy, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes answers many of the origin questions about both Coriolanus Snow and the hunger games. The novel takes place when Snow was only a Capital teenager. The tenth annual hunger games began a new tradition, the use of mentors with district tributes. Before that, the tributes were thrown into a stadium with no mentors, no guidance, no pageantry. Instead of district mentors, mentors were Capital students, including Snow. Snow was assigned to Lucy Gray Baird, the female district 12 tribute, and he falls in love.

Snow’s formative experiences are extremely relevant to shaping his perspective. Snow was a powerful Capital family name, but young Coriolanus was secretly living in poverty. He was an orphan, and he blamed a district sniper for the death of his parents. He lived with his grandmother and cousin Tigris (the same Tigris that helped Katniss and her team take down the Capital). At this stage, pride and pursuit to save the Snow name from destitute oblivion drive many of his early choices. Would he have made the same choices if he were financially secure and living with his parents? I’m not sure. Perhaps, but maybe without the same desperation to succeed.

His key to success would be to win the hunger games through Lucy Gray Baird. By doing so, he would win a full scholarship to the university, ensuring his future prospects. If he lost, he wouldn’t be able to afford a university education, all would discover his secret poverty, and he feared a bleak future of disgrace. As far as he was concerned, Lucy was his salvation.

Refraining from a complete plot summary, this desperation clouded Snow’s decisions, or perhaps they clarified it. He experienced the mental and emotional anguish of his first kill, which was made in self-defense. In moments of impulse, he laid out the groundwork for Lucy’s win. In other words, he cheated, but he also struggled with the emotional justifications for his choices. He had to, he would tell himself. “Snow falls on top.” Yet, in doing so, the image of an adult Donald Sutherland fades to that of a confused teenager, desperate for connection and clinging to a future that maintains the dignity he believes is his birthright.

His journey, step by step, is the hero’s journey, with no deviation. Except he is the villain and even at the close of the book when he eliminates his “love” (after his realization that love equates to weakness) and his greatest adversary at the time through poison, he recognizes and embraces his dark side. He does so for what he believes is the greater good. To do otherwise is to embrace the chaos and madness that could come from the anarchy of district freedom. If asked directly, he would agree that murder, cheating, and other devious acts are technically wrong, but were done so for the greater good of Panem. He would likely call himself a hero. Hero or villain: these distinctions are a matter of perspective.

From the Star Wars series, George Lucas has confirmed time and again that Luke Skywalker was modeled after the hero’s journey. In the same manner as Coriolanus Snow, Anakin Skywalker’s journey into the dark side and his identity as Darth Vader is very much the villain’s journey, mirroring the same steps as the hero’s journey. In Anakin’s mind, he is doing the right thing, that supporting the Empire is what’s best for all. Again, hero or villain: these distinctions are a matter of perspective.


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