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These ARE the Themes You're Looking For - James Newton Howard's Recurring Themes in The Hunger Games Scores

Guest Post By Courtney of Welcome To District 12

Katniss Afoot. Rue's Farewell. Searching for Peeta. The Cave. These are a collection of themes crafted by James Newton Howard that have evoked emotions in many Hunger Games fans since 2012. But did you know that we've been reliving them in every single THG film so far? 

Film composers often establish themes in scores to evoke an atmosphere, character, emotions, and in some cases all three. Then those themes get recalled in any scene to give the audience a subtle (or obvious) reference. A subtle reference might be hearing “Luke and Leia” when Luke realizes they are brother and sister, while Darth Vader whenever he walks into a room is what you'd call not so subtle. James Newton Howard employs this classic style of film composing in The Hunger Games. My name is Courtney, and I'm a die-hard fan of movie scores. Some of you know me from my fan site, where I've done a few score analysis posts over the years. I'll be taking you all on a comprehensive journey of James Newton Howard's work on THG starting from 2012. If you happen to own the scores, feel free to follow along! We'll be exploring JNH's established themes, the recalls, everything that has given the world of The Hunger Games its own spectrum of color.

James Newton Howard. Photo by Rob Shanahan


2012 was an intense and electrifying time for the THG fandom. It was new, growing, and no one had any idea the global scale of what it would be come March. It was the calm before the storm and Danny Elfman was no longer doing the score four months before the film's release. The score is one of the last steps of the film process, so no one was too worried. However, this development definitely affected how much of JNH's score made it into the film. In addition to providing the base themes for the THG franchise, JNH borrowed from some interesting sources to fill in the gaps. You may notice a heavy use of silence in certain scenes. While they may be choices on Gary Ross' part, it's possible that was just due to the tight scoring schedule.


Audiences first perception of District 12 is not one of JNH'S pieces but by Russian composer Evgueni Galperine. Fans will associate this music with a woman hugging her son before sending him off to the reaping along with other images of District 12. The first scene in which Katniss hunts also falls under this track. I find “Farewell” to be haunting, and the use of “Oohs” voiced by Mariana Tootsie is something that possibly influenced JNH later on. If you notice toward the end of the oohs, the musical notation sounds very similar to something JNH scores in Catching Fire (and ends up becoming an important theme). Oohs around 01:12 resemble a later theme in CF.

From this point forward we are going to take a look at the major themes established in order of appearance and why they are important to the emotion of the story. As we journey through the trilogy, you will begin to notice these themes being recalled in similar situations, in some instances to link them all together.

Follow along with the playlists for each film.


Reaping Day
The inciting incident for The Hunger Games (at least in my opinion) is when Peeta is reaped. Katniss probably wouldn't have had much issue going through the games if not for the internal conflict happening in her because the very person she owes her life to is her tribute partner. The piece “Reaping Day” signals the story's true beginning. It is filled with low strings for the dire nature of the situation, ending with this trumpet tune that gets repeated a few times in the future, usually in a pre-games/Capitol situation. 

Horn of Plenty
Did you know that the Capitol anthem was written by Arcade Fire? At the time, they provided the first song of the soundtrack with “Abraham's Daughter”, and, in addition, they wrote The Capitol anthem. We hear it first in the Treaty of Treason video shown in the District 12 reaping, and so forth in a few Caesar Flickerman updates, tribute parades, and sadly, the faces in the sky.

The Train
When Katniss and Peeta are escorted into the train, the score indicates a sense of wonderment about the delicate food and decor in the Capitol train, but does so with an obvious sense of what is terribly wrong. Yes, it's an amazing collection of high society, but these beloved new characters are walking to their death. JNH articulates that in this piece. In fact, this track is reused for a couple important plot points in the trilogy. 

Entering the Capitol
Fans need to pay attention to the beginning of this track. It is seemingly innocent in THG when Katniss and Peeta first arrive in the Capitol. It evokes a very foreign and almost creepy feel as freaky Capitol citizens ogle the tributes coming in, and will become an even more significant theme as the films progress. 

Katniss Afoot 
I find “Katniss Afoot” to be one of the most beautiful pieces by JNH, and sadly this is the only time it gets used in the trilogy so far. Before Katniss ends up running into the Careers, she hunts. This is where “Katniss Afoot” appears in the film, here and technically a little later on. The end of this piece has the main hook from “Searching for Peeta” most likely due to scheduling reasons. This track doesn't really have an overall significance to the movies, but I just think its so beautiful and definitely worth listening to. 

Healing Katniss 
Katniss is in a hell of a lot of pain in “Healing Katniss” and Haymitch goes on the search for sponsors to help her out. I really love the use of this song in this film, as it always pops up whenever Katniss is being comforted. First, Katniss receives her burn ointment, and later we hear it when Katniss is falling asleep in a tree with Rue. One is a physical comfort, the other mental. Keep reading to find out where this track appears in Mockingjay Part 1... 

Rue's Farewell
Okay, I cannot help but ugly cry when this song comes on my Pandora station (Skyrim radio), and I know I am not alone there. The beginning we only ever hear in Rue's death scene, but the second half is a theme that fans have come to associate with SADNESS. It gets used here, during the nightlock scene, and one other scene in Catching Fire that I just cannot handle. It's beautiful and sad, and I think that JNH really captures the emotion of this pivotal moment. I have always wondered if it was appropriate to use it in this scene AND the nightlock scene, but my guess is that they were on a time crunch. 

Searching For Peeta
Sometimes when a composer recalls themes in later movies, it is due to a character(s) being present, a specific location, or an event. Usually in this case people semi-interested in said film can recognize a character's theme. We'll touch on this theme later, because it unexpectedly shows up in the coolest place, as almost an easter egg for fans. 

The Cave
I'll admit that I wasn't entirely impressed with “The Cave” at first. It's pretty simple and unassuming, and let's be honest-- EVERYONE had ideas about how the cave scene was gonna go down. It wasn't until Catching Fire that we hear its true form, which is a lot more rich and elaborate. This theme is used for Katniss and Peeta scenes all throughout the films. We are going to be seeing a lot of different forms of Peeta in Mockingjay Part 2, so it will be interesting to see if it's used at all in the last film. From here on out, this theme will be referred to as “Katniss and Peeta”.



Catching Fire is the audience's first time experiencing a complete score for The Hunger Games. Whether it was due time restraints or budget, Catching Fire is the score that THG aspired to be. Francis Lawrence aka Savior of Fandoms gives The Hunger Games a vision that will carry it and dedicated fans to the end of the story. We didn't know it at the time, but Francis set up the building blocks of a cohesive vision for Panem. JNH also scored Water for Elephants, so the fact that Francis and JNH work well together is likely. James Newton Howard took the core themes from the first film, reworked them, and melded them into the new themes seamlessly. 

Catching Fire's marketing had Native American references in them, which makes sense given the use of the Native American flute in this track. The beginning of this song I have referred to as the “District 12” theme. It's the use of flute heard here and a few other spots for the next two films. In CF, it is always being used in or around District 12. In Mockingjay Part 1, it is used for an establishing wilderness shot of District 13.

I Had to Do That
This track may not seem to be one of the bigger tracks, but it's the first time we hear the theme which is probably repeated the most. I initially referred to this theme as “Katniss Ooh” (clever, right?). In fact, this is without a doubt the most important theme in the whole score collection. These “oohs” don't really show up until really important events, and it is always associated with Katniss. This, as you will see later, will be appropriately named The Mockingjay theme.

Just Friends
Here is the full Katniss and Peeta theme. It is heard here for the first time as it was meant to be heard, full of violins and a few other instruments. When I first saw Catching Fire, I didn't even notice this was a recall to “The Cave”. It wasn't until I did research for our site's annual score analysis that I figured it out, it was that much of a difference. Now, I adore this theme and am extremely excited to see how they will use it in Part 2.

The Tour
The beginning of this track is exactly like “Rue's Farewell”. It's when Katniss makes her speech about Rue. This scene has made me cry the hardest so far of the films. Katniss talks about remembering Rue: seeing her in the flowers that grow in the meadow, in Mockingjay song, in her sister Prim – LOOK CAN WE JUST TALK ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE?!

A Quarter Quell
When the Quarter Quell is announced, score from “The Train” starts playing. It's a beautiful track, but it's laced with negative tones. In this version, it ends with an even more sinister tone marking the announcement of what the Quarter Quell entails. There's also some symbolism is choosing “The Train” for this event because as soon as the Quarter Quell is announced, Katniss is mentally on the train to The Capitol already. 

Katniss is Chosen
The Mockingjay theme comes around again for this important event – Katniss getting reaped. All of Panem is catching fire (see what I did there) and District 12 is in quiet outrage. As the Everdeen family leads everyone in a three finger salute, the score swells to a triumphant, emotional, and undying theme. The notes in that section are the very same as those “Katniss Oohs”. In this form, it becomes the major theme of the films representing the events that lead Katniss towards finally deciding to become The Mockingjay.

I Need You
For the last Katniss and Peeta scene, JNH brings back the feels with “The Cave”. Audiences know it's the last real conversation they have for a long time, and it does not disappoint. The combination of Francis Lawrence's direction and James Newton Howard's beautiful composition makes this theme stick in audience's minds, so I really hope we get a recall in Mockingjay Part 2 at some point.

Arena Crumbles
Katniss comes to and the arena is beginning to fall apart. The Mockingjay Oohs begin and the theme slowly builds until the final moment when she is being airlifted out of the arena. When the song reaches the peak of crescendo, its a huge symbol for Katniss becoming The Mockingjay. Quite literally the position Katniss is in when she's being airlifted is that of a bird in flight during the climax of the film, which is reflected in the score. Watching this scene is the reason I categorize this as the Mockingjay theme. As you'll see soon, its used a few times in Part 1 and most likely will be used at least a few times in Part 2.

Good Morning Sweetheart
“Entering the Capitol” gets recalled here when Katniss eventually wakes up in District 13. She feels sadness, helplessness, and then at last – anger. Using a track used to portray the foreignness of The Capitol, Katniss now sets her eyes on The Capitol with much different intentions.




The beginning of the end.


Katniss' Visit to District 12

The above title is not a track, but just a blanket title for the whole beginning of the film. Katniss visits her home and it's a terrible scene. The themes used in this section are District 12 and the Mockingjay theme. When researching for this overview of THG scores, it wasn't until seeing Mockingjay Part 1 that I concluded how JNH was using this theme. At first it started as a subtle theme for Katniss, but as the films have progressed it's gotten bigger and bigger and more symbolic.

Katniss and Gale Hunt

This isn't on the track listing, but I want to point out that JNH put “Healing Katniss” in the MJ Part 1 score very briefly. Fittingly it's when Katniss and Gale hunts, which is immensely therapeutic for Katniss. I doubt that this theme will show up a third time, but it was nice to see an older piece show up in Part 1.

The Hanging Tree

If you're reading this, I'm pretty damn sure you know exactly what this song is. There was a lot of hype around it, yet fans knew little about it before seeing Part 1. The Hanging Tree fused the talents of James Newton Howard and The Lumineers and out of it came nothing but perfection in my eyes. People may disagree with me, but “The Hanging Tree” is as beautifully as it is haunting. It's a very catchy tune and mostly acapella, so it's a great song to sing by yourself. Eh? What weirdo does that?

In the books, Katniss uses The Hanging Tree to compare her relationship with Peeta and Gale. The movie, however, makes it all about Panem's rising rebel movement. Francis really hit the ball out of the park on this concept, and I am counting on it showing up again in Part 2.


JNH brings back some elements from “The Cave” when Katniss sees Peeta for the first time. Way to rip out our hearts, James Newton Howard! This occurs a few scenes before the piece “Victory” begins. As the film segues into what will be Mockingjay Part 2, Coin makes a speech as Katniss seeks out Peeta in the hospital. On the first viewing, I did not notice all these little score references sprinkled throughout Mockingjay Part 1. However, this next part was instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with The Hunger Games score. “Victory” goes once again into “Entering the Capitol” similarly used in Catching Fire. But as Katniss slowly approaches where Peeta is being kept, an old theme creeps in. JNH, you sneaky bastard! “Searching for Peeta”, something we've not heard for two films, shows up and closes out Part 1. Just as Katniss was tracking Peeta in the arena, she seeks him out in the hospital. I call that a zinger, if you ask me.

NOVEMBER 20, 2015

There's more to come in Mockingjay Part 2! The scores for these films have finally reached a point where there's a library full of themes that can be recalled, and I can hardly wait to see what JNH has in store for Part 2. James Newton Howard has cultivated the perfect score for this franchise, and I am thankful we have had the same composer for all the films. It helps a lot with cohesion and it's allowed JNH to really develop his beautiful themes.

These are just the core themes that reappear throughout the films. Every film is full of beautiful pieces, and I encourage you to listen to them if you haven't already. You never know what themes JNH might throw in for Mockingjay Part 2. Looking back on all that James Newton Howard has scored for The Hunger Games films, we are so lucky to have had his talents for all the films and provided such amazing color with his music. Happy listening!

Be sure to check out Courtney's fabulous Hunger Games Fansite It's one of our favorites, run by the most passionate and knowlegdeable of THG fans. Plus, they're just the coolest of cool chicks. 

Don't own and of The Hunger Games scores yet? You can find The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay Part 1 scores on Amazon

Reader Comments (7)

This is brilliant. A really insightful and well put-together piece that makes me appreciate THG film scores even more. Can't wait to hear what JNH has in store for MJ Part 2, and can't wait to read your analysis!

September 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

Terrific post – very thorough analysis. The one thing you missed is the use of the "Rue's Farewell" melody in the track "Air Raid Drill" during MJPt1. Could this be JNH foreshadowing the explosive storyline to come in Pt2? I'm hoping there will be another heartbreaking rendition of the Farewell theme when that other young character meets here fate.

September 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterWill

Will - Courtney here, author of this post. Yes the air raid drill was definitely in my notes! The Mockingjay theme shows up A LOT in Part 2. I love the way that piece uses The Mockingjay theme, but I just didn't mention it on account that it seemed to be only used for the drama of the scene. To clarify: The Mockingjay theme shows up in abundance in Part 1. It's in the opening scene, one of Katniss' hospital scenes, when Katniss returns to District 12, a Plutarch/Coin scene, and the Air Raid Drill. In my opinion, all of these are used for the sake of the score, and does not hold any particular hidden meaning. But as Caesar Flickerman would say, that is one woman's opinion. It was more important for me to include how the theme originally manifests itself into some huge symbolism in Catching Fire. No doubt it will heavily be used in Part 2 as well!

September 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCourtney

This is an amazing idea; to feature fan made videos beaded on THG on the biggest THG fan blog out there. I love the videos, they are very entertaining, not in a bad way. In fact, you guys inspired me to create my Hunger Games fan made video. You guys are amazing!! :)

September 23, 2015 | Unregistered Commentersilver gem

Thank-you for this. I noticed some of the themes you spoke of right away when I first saw Catching Fire ie , a Katniss theme, the Katniss & Peeta, Rue's and was listening in MJ. I wondered if there was more I was missing. Guess I was. This just adds to the richness of the whole Hunger Games experience!

September 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKatie

Thats exactly what I was looking for.
Absolutely perfect! Summorizing the best soundtracks of each movie and even linking similarities to prequel movies.
I wish I would find that for more Movie series with brilliant soundtrack.
(It's a bit time consuming for me to listen to the whole score of each movie, just to listen to similar scores everytime and pick out mayby 3 of each movie).

So thanks for digging so deep into the movie soundtrack itself, when most other people ignore it completely

February 28, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJeremy

Awesome work!!! I am a huge HG/music fan and I've been trying to figure out the themes that JNH has created. Your post has helped me so much. One question: the theme that plays at the end of Rue's Farewell comes back many, many times in the other films - it plays in the Air Raid MJ part 1, and at the end of MJ part 2. At first I thought it was Katniss' theme, but I don't think so. Any ideas? Thanks!!

June 20, 2016 | Unregistered Commenternaomi

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