The Hunger Games (James Newton Howard)

Final Musings: If you expected a bold adventure score, this isn’t your score. But if you’re a fan of James Newton Howard’s atmospheric works like Snow Falling on the Cedars, then you will probably enjoy this. Regardless, this score is definitely worth some repeated listens and careful attention. There is great merit to this work and one can’t help but appreciate the fine amount of thought put into it. It may be flawed, but it is definitely something to appreciate.

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy quickly rose in popularity upon its release. Yet it’s likely that even she didn’t predict the massive financial success that the film would open up with. Having hit box-office records with having the 3rd best opening weekend (preceded by The Dark Knight and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2) and the biggest opening for a non-sequel, the release of the potential upcoming film adaptations were confirmed. There are probably several factors that lent to the film’s success. And whether it’s the fact that people may be using The Hunger Games as a substitute for the large gap that the Harry Potter franchise left in the film industry, or simply the endless promotion for the production, the studios definitely found a new cash machine to milk. Perhaps its fortune is also in debt to the intriguing premise. The Hunger Games tells the tale of a girl named Katniss in a dystopian future where a male and female tribute of adolescence are picked from each district to fight to death in an event to amuse the elitist society of the Capitol of the nation. Despite some of the flaws of the movie and the narrative’s similarities to Battle Royale, it was well liked by both critics and mainstream alike.  A potential franchise of such hype inevitably leaves many endless possibilities in terms of the music. Initially, fans were enthralled to hear about Danny Elfman’s designation as the composer. However, due to schedule conflicts, Elfman would soon be replaced by James Newton Howard; a man who seems to have a talent for producing well crafted replacement scores (namely King Kong) in a short amount of time. Does he do the same this time around? He does, but perhaps not to everyone’s liking.

To really analyze this score, one would have to pay careful attention to its use in film. At times it works remarkably well in the picture while at certain moments, the keen listener might find it to be rather uneven. In fact, many viewers will be surprised by the fact that much of the music heard on film is actually not by James Newton Howard. And while the mention of source music often induces a great deal of skepticism from the film music community (and unbelievable enthusiasm from more mainstream fanboys), this is actually a particular case in which it works well. Highlights include the intriguing vocal melody composed by T-Bone Burnett near the beginning of the film known as Katniss’ Lullaby (a.k.a. Deep in the Meadow Lullaby). And some will probably be disappointed to learn that the Capitol Anthem was actually composed by Arcade Fire, although it was arranged, adapted and utilized as an actual theme by Howard. Oddly enough, James Newton Howard had 80 minutes of music written out for the film, and with only 30-40 minutes actually used in film (the rest being replaced by source music), one can’t help but wonder what Howard had planned.

There were big expectations resting on this score, but first thing off the bat, you’re bound to be disappointed, or at the very least, surprised. Early on, it was evident that T-Bone Burnett (acting as the music producer of the score) and director Gary Ross had a very clear vision of the score. Not to mention that James Newton Howard claimed that he would focus on Katniss’ emotions rather than the bigger picture. The result?  An intriguing atmospheric score that ranks amongst Howard’s more eclectic works. In many ways, you’ll hear Howard’s usual mannerisms work together to create a more intimate score. Many of the atmospheric portions will herald back to his score for Snow Falling on the Cedars. This is evident in the careful attention to the application of electronics and other varying eccentric elements. That being said, Howard seems to have taken on the creative approach when considering the array of diverse instrumental colours he uses in this score. The score incorporates a Celtic fiddle, an acoustic guitar, a cimbalom, a dulcimer and an array of ethnic flutes and percussion, often in a subtle fashion. These elements contribute to the composer’s strategy of utilizing a variety of different sonic landscapes to compliment Katniss’ perception of Suzanne Collins’ strange vision of the future.  For Katniss’ personal moments and her ideas of home, Howard offers a folksy, country sound, undoubtedly influenced by Burnett’s presence. In the protagonist’s moments in the wild, the music has various electronic tinkering and other ethereal attributes as heard on “Booby Trap”. Far more curious is the decision for the musical representation of the Capitol. Katniss views the Capitol as a bizarre group of savage elitists (showcased by their outlandish appearances), much like how slaves viewed their Roman masters. To reflect this, Howard creates an abrasive texture of electronic accents and distinct ethnic elements (not unlike a twist of the modern post-Gladiator representation of Rome) as heard on cues like “Entering the Capitol” and “Learning the Skills”. It’s an interesting musical aspect that works quite well in context and goes on to show the extensive thought put into this score

On the thematic side of things, the score is quite subtle. The score opens up with a simple domestic dulcimer motif that appears in “The Hunger Games” and “We Could Go Home” to represent the idea of home and District 12. Another major idea for Katniss is the 3-note wilderness motif that plays out when the character is out hunting in unfamiliar regions. It’s interesting how Howard subtly points out the parallels between the Capitol and the chaotic wilderness with this motif in “Entering the Capitol”. Furthermore, there is the Hunger Games theme that is crafted by brooding rising progressions that is ultimately expanded in “The Countdown”. Considering how this is one of the highlights, it’s a shame this track never made it onto the final cut. This theme is also hinted at in a positive key in “The Cave”. Yet, arguably the most alluring of the themes is the loss theme that is expanded in “Rue’s Farewell” and the last cue. Taking on Howard’s familiar sense of lyrical beauty and this is definitely a noteworthy highlight to appeal to fans. The other major theme is the Capitol Anthem which is probably one of the key musical moments in film that one might look out for on the album. However, it is important to note that this theme was actually written by Arcade Fire and arranged by Howard. The arrangement works to the theme’s benefit by adding a sense of gravity that a powerful empire’s musical identity would require; creating a very enjoyable cue for “Horn of Plenty”. Howard takes the theme into his score as the Capitol’s musical identity (as it is first heard in “Preparing the Chariots”).

Muse on These:

The Train

This cue features some of the most alluring lyrical writing in a very reflective nature. As always, fans of Howard’s emotional writing will be touched.

Katniss Afoot

The eccentric elements of this score will definitely grow on you. And to hear Howard combine the small details with the wilderness motif is always nice to hear. Again, it’s a shame this wasn’t used on film either.

Horn of Plenty

The theme may not be written by James Newton Howard, but the arrangements will likely have you fooled. The choral overlays gives this cue a sense grandeur that works quite effectively in its designated scene in film.

The Countdown

The way the Hunger Games theme develops in this cue is a notable highlight. Many of Howard’s stylistic tendencies build up here to create an enjoyable track. A shame this was never used in film.

Tenuous Winners/Returning Home

Taking us home to District 12, the Celtic fiddle and the cello brings us conclusively to Howard’s beautiful writing. And the grandiose nature of the loss theme is a must-have moment for fans of Howard’s writing.

It’s clear that there was a great deal of thought put into the score, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is much left to be desired. The subtlety and the nuances are nice attributes to appreciate and yet the score rarely breaks out of that mould. Of course there are the moments of grandeur and awe that are common to the composer’s career, but it is also important to note that the score at times meanders quite a bit. It also doesn’t help that the cues are largely short, giving some of the more attractive ideas of the score little time to develop. To go on, the action and electronic elements are notably cheap at times, particularly in “Muttations”. And while Gary Ross was very clear about the music, it’s undeniable that there were opportunities missed with this concept. And for all the talk of writing the score from Katniss’ perspective, there seems to be no major thematic idea for her. The score would have benefitted from a lush lullaby like theme in accordance to Howard’s lyrical greats. On that note, there is really no standout theme for audiences to come out humming to. It will take some time for listeners to warm up to this score, and this is lacking in highlights to rank up to Howard’s stronger suspense action scores. Regardless, it’s hard not to appreciate the fine details of the music. And the emotional climaxes are great moments to take out of the score too. As it is, the score is worthy of admiration for Howard’s approach, but it’s not without its flaws.

Rating:  * * * 

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6 Comments on “The Hunger Games (James Newton Howard)”

  1. apomk301 says:

    Nice review! I’m disappointed that we seemingly missed the chance to have a great sci-fi/fantasy score from JNH (or Danny Elfman).

  2. Hey KK, great review as always, thanks for your hard work (also appreciated Thomas’ analysis posted on Filmtracks). I usually enjoy a more detailed section on themes, but I realize the music here is a very eclectic mix and overall a much more subtle thematic and tonal experience. I for one really enjoyed the score in context of the film, and thought it served the story and settings pretty well. I am a fan of the books and overall was very impressed with the film.

    This soundtrack certainly has a bizarre history, or at least collaboration. I’d love to know the exact thought process that went on behind the scenes, and the collaboration between Ross, Burnett and Howard in terms of deciding when to use original score, tracked cues from other artists, and them some of Burnett’s original contributions.

    In case you didn’t know this already, there’s a website (below) that lists the official credits (from the film’s production notes) for all the music used in the film, including tracked material and original pieces besides Howard’s. Great resource, and also has links to listen to most of the pieces (although several of them are the full and original versions, not necessarily as edited into the film). It’s fun to listen to these as many I remembered from the film.

    Listening through those pieces, it’s interesting to note that the bulk of the electronic/sound-design/ambient pieces used in the film were Not Howard’s music, but tracked pieces (mostly used in the Cornucopia entrance scene and the later tracker-jacker hallucinations). The one piece that I really missed and had Hoped was Howard’s work is the opening piece “Farewell” (by Evgueni Galperine), which is what I attributed as “Katniss’ Lullaby/Theme” when I saw the film, the female sort of humming which plays in the opening hunting scene and once or twice therafter. Above in your review, you mentioned Burnett composing a Katniss Lullaby, so I wasn’t sure if you’re confusing it with the above piece, or what his other piece was…. that page also lists a “Deep in the Meadow Lullaby” composed by him, but that’s the only piece that doesn’t have a link to listen to, so not sure what that piece is, and the Farewell track is what I remembered hearing.

    Anyways, overall definitely a lot of thought went into the final film soundtrack, and even though I might not have done it that way myself, I think it largely succeeded in aiding the film as the director intended.

    That said, I’m dying to listen to the rest of Howard’s material for the film that is Not on the score album, especially knowing that Howard wrote over 80 minutes of music, of which only half is featured in the film and on the score album, really makes me wanna hear what He wrote for all the scenes that were ultimately tracked.

    Anyways, phewf, long speech!

    • kalaisan says:

      Always a fan of your detailed responses Joel! I did use the resource you pointed earlier in Filmtracks to analyze this score. It is very interesting to note how much of Howard’s music never made it to the film. The subtle touches here are what one has to appreciate, with the careful attention to the atmospheric qualities harkening back to Snow Falling on the Cedars, this score gets extra points for the level of thought put into it. The problem is, the approach glosses over many missed opportunities, which is a shame. Like you said, he wrote over 80 minutes, I’m curious as to how he would have expanded his score.

      As for Katniss Lullaby, that is not the same as Farewell, those are both different pieces. I personally was hoping the opening piece would be Howard’s too (and I was baffled by the fact that the lovely melody was never developed throughout the film) but that piece you’re actually hearing is “Deep in the Meadow Lullaby”. This tune is informally known as Katniss’ Lullaby, or at the very least thats how director Gary Ross likes to refer to it (check his note in the score’s booklet). So there was no confusion. Farewell and Katniss’ Lullaby (aka Deep in the Meadow Lullaby) are simply two different pieces.

      I how Howard shall approach the next 3 films (last one is being divided into two). Hopefully his music will be given more airtime!

  3. Beyond El Mar says:

    Wow, excellent review KK. And with the popularity of the film, there is a greater chance of a possible expanded release.

  4. Thomas Allen says:

    Great review. Though, I would definitely have given it another star! I’ve said this before, but I think your reasons that hold the score back (a lack of a strong central melody for Katniss, not much music used, etc) are the same reasons why Elfman left. In my opinion, a score like this was inevitable. After I had done some investigating on the web, I realized that Ross and Burnett would have nothing to do with a huge adventure score. And now that I think of it, the subtleties in this score complement the film very well. But, like you, I just wanted MORE. Oh well. I still want the rest of the score to be released!

    P.S. I feel special for having named the “Loss Theme”! ;-D

    • kalaisan says:

      Agreed, I even acknowledge the fact that Burnett’s vision of the score couldn’t be helped and that Howard was quite restricted in his creative freedom. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the score is what it is. I can’t give an extra star out of pity 😛 Regardless, the score is a very interesting work as you said, for the sublte nuances of the score.

      I was kind of stuck on naming the loss theme too, and then you really nailed it with that one so it crossed over here 🙂


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