I’m a latecomer to the Hunger Games – during my time at Waterstones, it was one of the most consistently popular books, and not just with teenagers and children – adults were buying this book, and given that the film was due to be released roughly a month after I left my job there, I’d say that many of these customers were eager to get the book finished before seeing the film. Now, I haven’t read the books, and in all honesty I don’t intend to; I enjoyed the film and I’ll be indulging in the whole franchise that way. And with teaser posters being release for the sequel, I’m sure the hype will start up again soon. Let’s take a closer look at – or listen to – the score…
On James Newton Howard’s original score for The Hunger Games, there are highlighted themes and pieces – though as with most films, this does not include all the incidental music (and I won’t be looking at every example of incidental music, as these are often just filler), such as the female vocals at the start of the film while Katniss is in the woods with her crossbow – though I found that one to be pretty interesting – Katniss has just come from singing a lullaby to her sister Primrose, to whom she provides a protective role, then she heads out into the forest and the accompanying music comes from an older female voice, a soothing melody punctuated with what sounds like a pizzicato cello pulse every few bars. It’s ominous, but not threatening.
Anyway, the film kicks off into action at the scene where the tributes are selected for The Hunger Games. The music played behind President Snow’s video is a version of the anthem played later in the film, ‘Horn of Plenty’. The arrangement heard here is an orchestral version scored by James Newton Howard for the purpose of using the leitmotif throughout the film, but the original version (which we will hear and explore later) was composed by Arcade Fire.
Next we have the train scene, accompanied by a a string-led piece entitled ‘The Train’.
My first reaction to the opening bars of this were that it reminded me of ‘Air’ by Bach – mostly because of the descending baseline with the lush, deliberate strings. The violin chords sustain to blend over one another as dissonances are created and then resolved, reflecting the on-screen ‘dissonance’ – Katniss and Peeta, both shown earlier in the film to be from desperately poor backgrounds, used to fighting for food, now sit on a luxurious train, surrounded by a variety of food and comforts all the while knowing that the train is taking them to what Haymitch refers to as “the probability of [their] imminent death”. I found the music to be very involving, if that even makes sense – the melody rises and falls every few bars, the hope of being victorious rising with it and the reality of this being statistically unlikely setting in with each downward trajectory of the melody.
An interesting change in tone in the incidental music takes place when Katniss and Peeta arrive in the Capitol – gone are the lush strings and ethereal, atmospheric chords. These are replaced with cold, electronic, rhythmic beats, distorted vocal samples and pulsating drums; we’re in the Capitol, a futuristic city which is infinitely more advanced than Katniss’s home in District 12.
This musical change shows the vast difference between where they’ve come from and where they are now. The official soundtrack release has a two and a half minute arrangement of this, entitle ‘Entering The Capitol’ – fragments of this appear in the film, and hearing it as one entire piece is interesting, as there are moments where it sounds like almost a face-off between the strings and the drums, reflective of the conflicts to come.
We’re 30 minutes in, and it’s time for the parade of the Tributes on their chariots. Underneath the parade and banter leading up to District 12’s chariot, the music features the ‘Horn of Plenty’ leitmotif from before in a piece called ‘Preparing The Chariots’ – steady, rhythmic drums under vocal samples and swelling strings, this gives us the thematic material in a different variation here, which leads seamlessly (although they are separated into different tracks on the CD) into the next musical moment – saving the outright statement of the ‘Horn of Plenty’ for Katniss and Peeta’s dramatic entrance.
‘Horn of Plenty’ was written by Arcade Fire, as I mentioned before; the band have become known for their explosive, unique sound which incorporates unusual instruments not normally used in pop music, making their sound somewhat timeless and difficult to place. Anyone who has ever seen a performance by the band will agree that there is a boundless, almost furious energy to some of their songs, which has been channeled into this piece in an alternative way. To reflect the spirit of the Capitol, which in this scene is almost like a war rally, the main horn melody is a fairly simple motif in a minor key – rather than inspiring hope and joy, this minor tonality should instil some fear, and yet the crowd cheer for it and it becomes their anthem – now that’s dystopian, people. The melody actually put me in mind of Danny Elfman’s Batman theme from the Tim Burton films, and the similarities just in that one motif are obvious. I’m not saying Arcade Fire stole it, though, it’s just a similarity. Stealing material is James Horner’s territory (YEAH, I SAID IT).
More incidental music of note – Katniss in her room decided to look at the forest on the big screen, and the birdsong and light, airy music take her (and the viewer) back to her beginnings in District 12, and her comfort in the wilderness.
Next, the training scene, imaginatively titled on the soundtrack as ‘Penthouse/Training’.
In this scene in the film, we see children of all races and ages learning combat and survival skills to help them. The music here is a real mix, starting with slow moving synths and strings, then going with some of the tribal sounding rhythmic patterns from before, with more steady percussive sounds coming from low horn ‘hits’; these add some drama to an already dramatic situation, and there are hints of Eastern influences in the music here, with shrill chromatic melodies creeping in from time to time and the occasional mandolin, perhaps to compliment some of the martial arts aspects of their training? Maybe I’m thinking too hard about it, though. The drama in Katniss’s crossbow scene is sparse, but there is a recurrence of the incidental music from when she watches the playback of a Tribute becoming victorious by brutally killing his opponent with a brick. At the first appearance of the music, she switches the TV off, suggesting that she can’t bear to watch or get involved with this event. This time the music plays when she makes a humiliatingly bad shot in front of the sponsors. Instead of giving up, she steadies herself, knowing that this is a fight to the death and that sponsors are a necessary part of winning, and attempts to blow their freakin’ minds by getting a perfect chest shot – when she sees they’re not looking, she goes all William Tell on their asses and pins part of their dinner to the wall. Go Katniss!
It is worth briefly mentioning the music that precedes the interviews, because it’s jazzy as hell and pretty catchy…
So let’s move on to the countdown.
The Tributes are standing on their platforms, the crowd is waiting and watching as the battle is about to commence. There’s no need for music at this point, as something much smarter takes its place – a countdown, which you know you can’t speed up, you just have to wait for it, making it all the more tense – and then the countdown and all the sound effects stop. The music creeps in, and we don’t hear the shouts and cries of the wounded; we get sustained, ringing electronic notes, followed by a rushing two-note string motif which is layered with other dissonant two-note motifs, all at once jarring yet somehow sparse – the shock and rush of the start of the event would surely have this effect on an competitor. To me, it seems to evoke the ringing sound that you would expect to hear after hearing an explosion. Then the sound effects in turn replace the music for a moment, with the dramatic explosions of cannon marking the end of the fallen tributes. Cannons are used in some military-themed orchestral pieces, so it’s a nice nod to that. We hear the ‘Horn of Plenty’ anthem again briefly at the end of this scene.
There are a few interesting little musical bits after this which are brief but worth mentioning. As Katniss heals in the tree with her competitors waiting for her below, the music briefly plays a rural, folk-like string melody – Katniss is alone, and the music harks back to the type heard at the start. The four note birdsong motif that Rue and Katniss whistle to one another does not appear in the score anywhere, which is actually kind of neat because it keeps it as something just between the two of them. Katniss later sings a song to Rue that she was heard singing to her sister at the start, which highlights the sacrifice she has made for her sister.
So now we’re on to the climactic section of the film. Katniss and Peeta, out on their own in the finale with the chance to win together. As the sky darkens, some classic horror-movie-style music creeps in underneath the sound effect; a sustained low note, followed by a shrill, shrieking chord as the beast jumps out from the trees in the way a slasher film would have the masked killer jump out from behind their victim. Throughout the chase scene we hear that fast moving percussion again, complementing the action with its unrelenting aggression and energy. The horns also come back, a reminder that this event is being controlled by a sadistic panel, which gives way to more sombre strings as Cato gives his final speech, swelling again dramatically to the moment when Katniss defeats him. The horns make a brief appearance hear again – I get the feeling that the horns are indicative of the Capitol even here; none of them should be in this position, but they are because of a corrupt government. There’s nothing really triumphant about children being forced to kill one another. As Katniss and Peeta hear that they can no longer win as a team and must between them fight to the death once more, the music resembles that of a more serious and somewhat romantic tone, the emotive strings now simply there to highlight the bond between the two.
From this point, the music combines the some of the previous elements – the sample sounds, the sustained and repetitive notes, the authoritative horns and the electronic effects, over a montage of clips where we see Crane led to a room where his fate becomes clear to him, Haymatch instructs Katniss to play up the star-crossed lover vibe for the audience, Flickerman interviews Katniss and Peeta, and the two are crowned by President Snow.
The music here is not wholly triumphant – strings and horns together, the minor key and the fact that it isn’t really as loud as a triumphant score would be both highlight that this victory is not what it seems to be. And right at the very last moments, we get some more military-style drums and the introduction of a distorted electric guitar as we head into the credits, the ethereal vocals making their way back with the final song by Arcade Fire, ‘Abraham’s Daughter’.
So there’s my breakdown of the music – it’s not the greatest score in the world, but it does a good job. It could be tempting for a composer to go all-out with the futuristic style in a score for a film like this, but James Newton Howard (in his infinite, underestimated wisdom) manages to combines many musical elements and influences to create a fitting soundtrack.