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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  • Composed by James Newton Howard
  • Universal Republic / 2013 / 76m

The Hunger Games series got off to a good start at the cinema with the excellent first film, very assuredly made by Gary Ross.  The second part of the trilogy (which has inevitably been turned into a quartet, with the final book unnecessarily split into two films) is Catching Fire; Ross disappointingly dropped out early on and, while his replacement Francis Lawrence did a decent job, the second film misses some of the distinctive touches Ross brought the first, and also suffers from classic “middle part of trilogy that wasn’t originally planned to be a trilogy” problem in that whereas the first film is dramatically complete and builds to a conclusion, Catching Fire is really only an extended opening act to the next one.

James Newton Howard didn’t get that much praise for his score for the first movie, but I really liked it; the earthy feel he brought to things felt satisfyingly fresh and away from the predictable Hollywood mainstream.  It always seemed likely that he would come back for the sequel – not only did he score the first one, but he has also worked with the new director before.  I was looking forward to hearing how he would develop his music from the first part – the big surprise there being the lack of a real theme for Katniss, the main character, and I hoped he would not just extend the folksy charm to give her a full theme but also look at a few other areas to develop.

James Newton Howard

Sadly, that’s not what happened.  Some familiar music returns – “Rue’s Farewell” from the first score is heard a couple of times in the second one.  In the cinema I wondered if it had just been tracked in, but it’s apparent on this album that no, they are “fresh” versions for the sequel; and the outstanding “Horn of Plenty” theme, for the games themselves, also returns and is heard very frequently through the film, though not on the album.  That’s not actually Howard’s composition, of course, having being penned by the band Arcade Fire – and it’s only really restated, not developed.

What’s very disappointing is the new music.  The composer has penned a far more “conventional” score this time, and spotted the film very differently, no doubt at the behest of the different director; there’s a lot more music this time, it’s of the more standard modern orchestral-augmented-by-synths variety and almost always feels far less like a distinctive film score that was designed for this film (or series) than it does a simple vanilla action/thriller score.  When he does return to the kind of earthy music I mentioned earlier – such as in the outstanding first section of “Prim” – these moments stand out like a beacon above everything else.  I understand that the style of music was probably intended to be restricted to Katniss’s District Twelve, but it would easily have worked within the arena too.

I like the fake love theme the composer introduces in “Just Friends” and repeated later in “We’re a Team”, by far the strongest new material in the score, but it’s a pretty subtle theme and is over very quickly, so I can’t say it leaves much of an impression.  The standalone pastiche renaissance “Daffodil Waltz” is like nothing else here, but is very pleasant.  You have to be a bold composer to stick a piece of Brahms in the middle of your score and evidently Howard is; I’m really not sure he comes off that well from it though, mutating the composer’s “Waltz in A” into a horribly generic piece of suspense music.

In fact so much of the score, when it isn’t quoting its predecessor, is moody, murky orchestral brooding which can’t really be considered to be more than orchestral wallpaper.  At times there’s a quasi-religious sound which evokes some of the composer’s music for Shyamalan, but it doesn’t come close to hitting those heights (how he gets so much more inspired by that director than any other remains a great mystery to me).  There’s a bit more action and perhaps that will be a crowdpleasing move to film score listeners, but it’s extremely generic action: the percussive “Peacekeepers” is appropriately unsettling but has little to offer outside the film, and later “The Games Begin” features a kind of siren call in the strings which is a nice idea, but never quite taken to where it might have gone.  “The Fog” is the pick of the action cues – its actually interesting music, with the brass trills and genuinely intense feel, but it feels like slim pickings.

Catching Fire feels like a huge step down from the first score.  The bulk of the very long album is little more than tiresome drone and if you look at what’s left, actually there’s hardly anything which isn’t a simple repeat from the last one.  It’s ironic in a way – Howard had very little time to write the first score after Danny Elfman departed the film, but had much longer to execute his vision on this one.  It’s so disappointing he didn’t take the opportunity to grasp the very fine, distinctive sound he brought to The Hunger Games and extend it into something that would give the whole series the musical backdrop it deserves.  Instead, it sounds like just another Brand X 2013 film score, and doesn’t come anywhere near the top of the long list of those.

Rating: ** | |

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  1. orion_mk3 (Reply) on Tuesday 17 December, 2013 at 01:18

    Sadly, “tiresome drone” seems to fit most of JNH’s output these days, but that seems to be the kind of “safe” music producers want.

  2. Lee (Reply) on Wednesday 15 January, 2014 at 22:29

    This review clearly shows that the reviewer has not properly listened to Howard’s score. You say that the love theme is the best new theme which appears in ‘Just Friends and, ‘We’re a Team.’ that is incorrect on all accounts. First it isn’t new, he developed it in the first Hunger Games film, in the piece, ‘The Cave,’ to establish a love theme for the characters for future films, and also it appears in the pieces, Just Friends’ and ‘I Need You,’ not ‘We’re A Team.’ If you’re going to review someone’s work, please have the respect to actually listen properly to it first.