Franchises JNH Thursday

Soundtrack review: The hunger games (James Newton Howard – 2012)

I haven’t read or seen anything from “The hunger games” franchise. I might at some point but until now my only exposure to this story has been through James Newton Howard’s music. I’ve enjoyed a great deal the third score, from last year so it’s time for me to revisit the other two compositions from this series.

Right from the second cue “Katniss Afoot” I hear a sound that pleases me. This is a Celtic influenced piece, it has the magic flute in it and it sounds to me like the beginning of a journey. It doesn’t sound like someone’s running are being afraid, just confidently starting something. Now I may not know the story but I know what it’s about: kids being asked to compete in these competitions and killing themselves. I am expecting to feel that from the score soon.

“Reaping day” starts to hint at the sad world the story takes place it. I am starting to get familiar with a hopeless and bleak existence. “The train” goes even further and it’s the first goose bump worthy moment of the score. It is almost elegiac in sound and it gives me a feeling of terrible loss. The loss happened a long time ago and I am remembering it. I imagine it’s just those kids being resigned to this life. “Entering the capitol” continues in the same path and there’s a kid choir somewhere in the background, barely audible, as if coming from a thick fog. The beginning of this cue reminds me of “Snow falling on cedars”. Midway through the track the sadness subsides and the pulse starts beating faster into the first action moment of “The hunger games”.

“Horn of plenty” is almost epic and I am not used to this from James Newton  Howard. He very cleverly brings an almost Roman sound to this piece evoking in my mind the bountiful times of the Roman Empire. Nothing is spared and this celebration makes me want to see what it’s all about. Somehow “Penthouse / training” with its Eastern sounding strings at the beginning keeps the sound in that area. I am surprised that this training cue is suspenseful, because to me training should sound like it did in Rocky IV…Inspirational, motivational…But I guess when you are training for these hunger games this is how it feels. You know you are going to war with other kids for someone’s entertainment and you take no pleasure in it.

When the action starts I am not very convinced. I prefer James Newton Howard’s deeper cues and I feel his action is a little electronic and generic. “Learning the skills” and “Booby trap” don’t do much for me. “The countdown” has a nice ending which truly gives the feeling of a countdown to something bad. I feel that with “The Hunger games” though he wants to keep the listener guessing about this score. His main purpose seems to be to create a feeling of unease. The emotional cues don’t go very deep and the action ones also stay a little quiet. Everything dances around an invisible line that James Newton Howard drew.

The music slips from that trap in “Healing Katniss” and this is an almost ambient cue with a warm and tender sound. there’s nothing but a quiet guitar being strummed and giving that healing impression. This cue is more in the vein of South American composers like Gustavo Santaolalla or Antonio Pinto and is right up my alley. “Rue’s farewell” keeps the atmospheric and dreamy trend and I am subdued and hypnotized. I could never get enough of music like this and James Newton Howard delivers. These sensitive cues sound like shelter in that violent and hopeless world. “Rue’s farewell” is the first piece where I really recognize my second favorite composer. This has his sensible touch and once that part from 3:00 starts I can count this among my favorite JNH cues. It rises the level of emotions until it’s almost choking me. Magnificent cue.

This final part of the score seems as if taken from a different movie than the first 11 cues. “We could go home” is another vintage JNH heart warmer. Even the action parts (like the middle section of “Looking for Peeta”) deliver in this section. And how about that ending… “Tenuous winners/ Returning home” give me all I need from a James Newton Howard track.

The final part of “The hunger games” completely changed my perception of the score. I loved the ambient parts and the guitar melodies and I must admit this score was very different from what I was expecting.  It didn’t focus on action at all and instead tugged at the sensitive chords. I am very curious now about the second score form the franchise.

Cue rating: 83 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 16 / 42

Album excellence: 38%

Highlights:

The Train

Horn of Plenty

Healing Katniss
Rue’s Farewell
We Could Go Home
Searching for Peeta

Tenuous Winners/Returning Home

About the author

Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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