Home > Reviews > THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE – James Newton Howard


December 6, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

hungergamescatchingfireOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Catching Fire is the second film based on the bestselling Hunger Games trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins, following on from the smash hit Hunger Games movie last year. Jennifer Lawrence returns to the starring role as Katniss Everdeen, a young woman from a post-apocalyptic America who, along with her compatriot Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), survived their participation in the eponymous games – a gladiatorial-style combat tournament involving children from various impoverished ‘districts’, who fight to the death for the entertainment of the wealthy and decadent inhabitants of the Capital, organized as penance for a popular uprising generations previously. In Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta have drawn the ire of the corrupt and sadistic President Snow (Donald Sutherland) for defying the Government and for possibly inciting a potential second uprising within the districts; in response, Snow orders a second, special games called the “quarter quell” in which former winners of the games must compete again, in a nightmarish new battle arena designed to look like the jungle.

Returning to write Catching Fire’s score is composer James Newton Howard. He was originally a late replacement for the first film’s original composer, Danny Elfman, and as such didn’t have a great deal of time to develop many themes or recurring motifs – the resulting first score was disappointingly anonymous, without much individual personality. Thankfully, Catching Fire redresses most of those issues; Howard was on board from the beginning, working with director Francis Lawrence from the outset, and being given more time to develop his sound palette and thematic identity for the film. As a result, Catching Fire is a much more rounded score, which builds on the instrumental ideas established in the first film, but seems much more of a well-constructed score than the original.

One thing listeners who have seen the film will notice immediately is the almost complete absence of “Horn of Plenty”, the glorious choral anthem for Panem written by the French-Canadian band Arcade Fire, which appears numerous times in the movie but gets just one 40 second burst on CD. It’s interesting how this piece, rather than anything James Newton Howard wrote, has become the film series’ defining musical identity, and its lack of multiple performances on the soundtrack may disappoint those who expected it to be more prominent. Instead, Newton Howard’s score mixes soft, regional textures and contemporary electronics with some blistering action music, especially in the score’s second half.

Katniss’s musical identity, and that of her district, is rooted in the music of Appalachia: haunting woodwind solos, fiddles, guitars, dulcimers, and so on. Cues such as “Katniss”, parts of “I Had To Do That”, “Prim” and the lovely, intimate “We’re a Team” have a slight sense of melancholy about them that really gets into Katniss’s mindset as she starts to truly recognize the injustices in her society. The soft, cooing performances of Dutch composer/vocalist Sunna Wehrmeijer add a sense of heartrending reflection to the aforementioned “I Had To Do That” the desperately tragic “Katniss is Chosen”, and the quasi-religious “Arena Crumbles”, while the hesitantly romantic theme for Katniss and Peeta in “Just Friends” brings back welcome memories of the idyllic parts of his underrated score for The Postman. Elsewhere, “The Tour” revisits the emotional music that accompanied the Rue character from the first film with a great deal of poignancy, while the hammered dulcimer makes an important return during the finale of “Peacekeepers”, where the brutality of the capital’s forces meet face-to-face with District 12’s residents.

The more contemporary electronic and synthetic aspects tend to accompany President Snow, the Peacekeepers, and the general societal malaise prevalent in the Capital. “We Have Visitors”, “Fireworks” and “Let’s Start” have an overwhelming sense of barely contained malice and resentment, while the music for the vicious “Peacekeepers” is as violent and abrasive as the stormtrooper-like minions it represents, with its menacing clanging metallic percussion and harsh, in-your-face aggressiveness. Contrary to this is the opulent renaissance-style “Daffodil Waltz”, which is clearly meant to represent the overly-lavish musical tastes of the Capital’s overdressed elite, who are either oblivious or willfully indifferent to the hardships that exist outside their borders.

However, once the film moves from the outside world and into the battle arena itself, Newton Howard’s music switches gears entirely, becoming a more straightforward action-adventure score that is very entertaining indeed. “Bow and Arrow”, for example, uses high, searching strings and call-and-response brass writing to create a sense of tension and anticipation, while later cues like “The Games Begin”, “The Fog”, “Monkey Mutts”, “Jabberjays” and “Broken Wire” are vicious, rampaging, full-orchestral assaults which bring to mind the outstanding dinosaur attack cues from King Kong. The vivid string writing, monstrous brass calls, and dramatic choral performances in “The Fog” especially make it one of the standout cues on the album for me. This action music also leads directly into the score’s big emotional moment, “I Need You”, a pretty recapitulation of the Katniss and Peeta love theme which rises to previously unexplored heights of delicate beauty towards its climax.

Perhaps the main drawback of the score is that, with the exception of Horn of Plenty, there is still no single defining musical element of the entire Hunger Games franchise which earmarks itself as its calling card, and for the second time Newton Howard has failed to give it one. The love theme for Katniss and Peeta is lovely but unlikely to catch on with the general public, and other than the theme for Rue, and the basic instrumentation palette for Katniss’s District, there are no recurring thematic ideas that transition from one score to the next. As a result it’s all a little anonymous and safe, which is especially disappointing considering we know what James Newton Howard is capable of bringing to the films he scores. The music is never anything less than competent, the action music is generally excellent, and occasionally it rises to quite exceptional emotional highs, but there is still this nagging feeling that the score is less than it could be.

Note: Not included on the score album are Coldplay’s popular original song “Atlas”, Of Monsters and Men’s “Silhouettes” or The Lumineers’ “Gale Song”, all of which feature prominently in the film, and can instead be sound on the accompanying soundtrack compilation.

Buy the Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Katniss (1:42)
  • I Had To Do That (2:22)
  • We Have Visitors (3:01)
  • Just Friends (1:29)
  • Mockingjay Grafitti (1:44)
  • The Tour (5:56)
  • Daffodil Waltz (0:26)
  • Waltz in A, Op.39, No.15 (written by Johannes Brahms) (0:43)
  • Fireworks (3:05)
  • Horn of Plenty (written by Win Butler and Régine Chassagne) (0:36)
  • Peacekeepers (5:55)
  • Prim (2:08)
  • A Quarter Quell (2:06)
  • Katniss is Chosen (3:18)
  • Introducing the Tributes (1:29)
  • There’s Always a Flaw (1:47)
  • Bow and Arrow (1:07)
  • We’re a Team (1:52)
  • Let’s Start (2:02)
  • The Games Begin (4:43)
  • Peeta’s Heart Stops (2:10)
  • Treetops (1:22)
  • The Fog (4:58)
  • Monkey Mutts (4:45)
  • Jabberjays (1:33)
  • I Need You (3:58)
  • Broken Wire (3:53)
  • Arena Crumbles (1:44)
  • Good Morning Sweetheart (3:04)

Running Time: 75 minutes 14 seconds

Republic Records B0019638-02 (2013)

Music composed by James Newton Howard. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Orchestrations by Pete Anthony and Peter Bateman. Special vocal performances by Sunna Wehrmeijer. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Weidman. Album produced by James Newton Howard.

  1. December 7, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    Glad to hear that this is better than the prequel score, which was doubly disappointing for Elfman’s departure and JNH’s relatively bland replacement. Sadly, it seems that “anonymous and safe” is the phrase that describes a lot of JNH’s output these days…whether by his own design or because it’s what the producers want.

  2. David
    December 20, 2013 at 10:34 am

    Good review, Jon. But I gotta make some remarks.

    First, The Hunger Games is no Harry Potter or LOTR, you can’t ask something truly memorable and recognizable for a story of people being send to kill each other in a country dominated by a dictatorship.

    A fully bombastic and orchestral score for this would have being unappropiated, and it would have glorified the violence and brutality of the story, which is the social critique of the books. The much more aggresive use of the orchestra in the sequel it’s because they aren’t killing kids.

    The reason of why the Capitol’s hymn (and Rue’s 4 notes lullaby) are recognizable it’s because it was in the books. Rue’s Farewell is recognizable because it’s a theme that reflects Katniss’s losses and her way to become the Mockingjay (James infact use this theme in certain parts of the second score). Lots of people (including fans of the books) we’re pretty much able to notice the previous themes of the first score being reused in the second (more than in the Hobbit/Harry Potter scores).

    Also, your review doesn’t mention that Katniss gets a new theme (she had a 8 notes motif on strings in the first score), which it was first heard in the last theatrical trailer, and people we’re able to recognize it in the score in the film and notice the similarities with the vocal themes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2 and Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters.

    Second, I don’t get what people want from JNH anymore, he uses a full orchestra, he’s bashed. He uses themes (After Earth is his most thematic score since The Last Airbender), he gets bashed. He uses electronics, he gets bashed. No matter what he does, James’s work never gets the appreciation he deserves. He has become into a film music Shyamalan.

    Every time I hear a new score of his, I can hear his style, his signature writing. The only difference is how his scores have being mixed (the synths and brass are too loud, the choir and woodwinds are nowhere to be heard)

    Third, The Hunger Games like King Kong and Waterworld was composed in 3 weeks, but with King Kong and Waterworld, people we’re appreciative because it was all bombastic. With THG, James was able to make the foundations of the musical styles and sounds of the franchise, and expand them in the sequel, just like John Powell did with the Bourne franchise.

    And if you expect something different for the last two films of Mockingjay, they’ll be much more violent, gritty, and tragic that both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire combined, And James said from the beginning that his music will reflect Katniss’s emotions, which it means that he’ll end the franchise how he started it.

    • December 20, 2013 at 6:57 pm

      You seem to be arguing against a point I’m not making. Typical Yonathan Vargas and your JNH persecution complex. Give it a rest.

      Also, your comment “you can’t ask something truly memorable and recognizable for a story of people being send to kill each other in a country dominated by a dictatorship” is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard. That sort of scenario, with all the political and sociological issues that come with it, absolutely DEMANDS something memorable and recognizable! Memorable and recognizable scores have been written for films with much less going for them.

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