When someone mentions the Hunger Games, one’s thoughts likely gravitate towards Katniss Everdeen, the thirteen Districts, and the whole cinematic spectacle. More recently, the mention might garner a visceral reaction towards that Josh Hutcherson "Whistle" meme, or with the recent release of the series prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, you might be reminded of the internet’s collective thirst over President Coriolanus Snow. (What’s up with that, by the way? I know Tom Blyth is hot, but has everyone forgotten that Snow is evil?)
For me, however, I’m immediately reminded of the music. Any passing reference to the Hunger Games films immediately triggers a track of songs in my head—Lorde’s “Yellow Flicker Beat,” “Abraham’s Daughter” by Arcade Fire, Coldplay’s “Atlas,” the list goes on. My love of the Hunger Games film series is deeply rooted in its musical storytelling. With every installment, the music of Hunger Games has concentrated the vivid imagery of the films, steeped in dystopian naturalism and an earth–toned aesthetic, into evocative lyricism and song.
It’s no argument that the Hunger Games franchise has found incredible success with its book–to–movie adaptations, a highly contentious genre of film. Some of this success can be attributed to the creative team’s casting decisions, in which a slew of young emerging talent, such as Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, and now Rachel Zegler and Tom Blyth, starred within a foundational ensemble of Hollywood veterans, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, and Viola Davis. The Hunger Games production team has also had a record of creating viral marketing campaigns—from scattering pieces of a 100–piece puzzle to fans nationwide to distribute the first movie poster, to designing an entire Capitol–esque fashion magazine and creating Capitol Portraits supported by official media sites for Catching Fire.
But arguably the most enduring and impactful features of the Hunger Games cinematic universe is its music. Weaving the thematic essence of the stories of Panem, the country the plot is based in, into enduring melody, the Hunger Games soundtracks are not merely backing tracks to the films’ visual extravagance. They are used as stories in and of itself. They sing songs of revolution, of suppression, of hope, and of fire. The music of the Hunger Games is what connects the world of Panem to us.
The music direction of the Hunger Games made the right call in employing masters of the contemporary music scene to collaborate on original soundtrack albums to accompany the films. While this concept is not original by any means, the thematic coherence and lasting influence of the Hunger Games albums, including The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt. 1 (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack), is nothing short of triumphant. Some of the 2010s’ most notable pop masterpieces have been rooted in the legacy of the franchise—see Sia’s “Elastic Heart”.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m the biggest Swiftie, and yet, my favorite Taylor Swift song of all time is not one from her own albums, but the song she wrote for the first Hunger Games movie, “Safe and Sound” ft. The Civil Wars. (I personally consider “Safe and Sound” the outdoorsy–older sister of folklore and evermore.) Its folky, alternative country–esque composition and eerie, melancholic lyrics perfectly epitomize the film’s grim circumstances, as Katniss fights to survive in the eponymous game. Many theorize that the song is a lullaby sung by Katniss to her younger sister Prim to keep her safe in the midst of the turmoil across Panem: “Don't you dare look out your window, darling, everything's on fire / The war outside our door keeps raging on / Hold onto this lullaby even when the music's gone, gone.”
For the third installment of the series, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt. 1, the franchise actually hired pop juggernaut Lorde to curate the soundtrack for the film, a mixtape–style album featuring a slew of notable artists, including Kanye West, Grace Jones, and Tinashe. While the first two films' soundtracks are centered on more acoustic instrumentation and natural–folk inspirations, this album is heavily rooted in electronic hip–hop, rock, and synth as a reflection of the massive chaotic shift in the series’ storyline—Mockingjay marked the beginning of the overturn of Snow’s Panem and the Capitol, kickstarting the revolution.
Music is also deeply integrated in the diegetic world of the Hunger Games and holds importance for its characters: Katniss’ father was renowned for his voice and passed down many folk songs from District 12 to Katniss, who sings throughout the entire saga. Music often plays a part in celebrations throughout Panem, and Rue, the young doe–eyed Tribute from District 11 that reminds Katniss of her sister, describes music as her favorite thing in the world. One of the most defining moments of the first film is when Katniss sings the “Deep In the Meadow” to a dying Rue in the arena: “Lay down your head and close your eyes / And when they open, the sun will rise.”
I watched the astutely–named Hunger Games prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes a few weeks ago, and this newest edition into the universe of the Hunger Games cements the significance of music within author Suzanne Collins’ vision. In this film, the line between accompaniment soundtrack albums and the plot itself is completely blurred, as one of the core components of the storyline is the earth–shattering impact of female protagonist Lucy Gray Baird’s musical talent.
Nicknamed the “Songbird,” Lucy Gray and her Covey Band perform a number of original songs throughout the film. She steps onto the stage on the day of the Reaping and introduces herself to all of Panem with a defiant acapella song (“Nothing You Can Take From Me”), and she moves the entire country with her voice. Her Mentor, then–student Coriolanus Snow, urges her to sing, just sing, to grab the attention of the people, and hopefully as a result gain some protection in the arena. Lucy Gray sings her heart out to soothe herself and her loved ones in times of trouble, to protest, and to call for revolution. It’s a form of catharsis for the character, but also for the audience.
The Hunger Games scores, as well as many of the songs in the newest soundtrack, were written by film composer James Newton Howard, whose credits also include Batman Begins and The Dark Knight with Hans Zimmer. Many of Howard’s Hunger Games pieces, including Lucy Gray’s songs with her Covey Band, share acoustic–style Appalachian–inspired influences—the region the story is set in.
In this newest movie, we see, for the first time, the backstory behind the infamous “The Hanging Tree” murder ballad first sung by Katniss. I remember the chills I got the first time I heard the song in Mockingjay Part 1, seeing Katniss intonate its haunting lyrics as scenes of revolution in the Districts played by. We now see the physical hanging tree in District 12 and learn that “The Hanging Tree” song originated from Lucy Gray and was presumably passed down generation to generation and ultimately to Katniss—cementing the solemn enduring legacy of the song. (The song was so popular that “The Hanging Tree” actually landed on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2014, giving Jennifer Lawrence her Billboard debut.)
We see the revolutionary power of music when Lucy Gray directly addresses the Capitol on the day of Reaping, when she sings about her impending death during a publicized Capitol interview, and when she fends off creatures in the arena. We see Snow enraptured by her song, and ultimately stricken by it. And stricken for decades upon decades, he is. When Katniss sings “The Hanging Tree” in the subsequent films, he is visibly shaken—we first assume it’s due to his hatred of Katniss, but now we question whether it’s by the trauma and memories of his past self with Lucy.
Similar to past films, the Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes also employed a popular musician to craft an original song for the film—this time, pop star Olivia Rodrigo wrote “Can’t Catch Me Now,” an acoustic power ballad inspired by the scene in the film in which the mockingjays fly over Snow’s head, and he realizes that Lucy Gray has gone.
As the saying goes, where words fail, music speaks, and this is a truth nowhere more evident than in the Hunger Games. A trailblazer in the YA dystopian film–book genre, the series owes much of its influence to its decision to make music integral to its narrative. The haunting melodies and earworms like “The Hanging Tree” and “Can’t Catch Me Now” become as intrinsic to the series as Katniss’ braids and the three–fingered salute. The music sticks with us long after the lights come on in the theater, and that’s what makes the stories of the Hunger Games so indelibly resonant.