Be aware, mild spoilers ahead.
Also, for the more musically educated, I use the word “notes” when I should probably be using the word “tones.” Sorry if it makes your heads explode.
I’m a bit late to the game (<--- ha ha! you see what I did there?), but I recently devoured Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy and found them thoroughly enjoyable (if you haven’t read the books, I highly recommend them). As to be expected, the first book has been adapted to film and will be in theaters sometime this year. For now, all we have to tide us over until it debuts on the big screen is the above trailer.
First, if you’re planning to read the books, don’t watch the above trailer until after you’ve read the first chapter. Ms. Collins did a nice job of playing with readers’ expectations and delivered a little curveball at the end of the first chapter. Most of you may have seen it coming, but I didn’t and I was pleasantly surprised. However, that curveball is pitched fast and straight in the trailer. So for those of you who might get a kick out of that first chapter, read it before watching the trailer.
Second, Cinna, my favorite character in the series, is being played by Lenny Kravitz. I can tell you that as I read the books, Lenny was not the image I had in my head for this character. But seeing him for just the few moments above, I’m really looking forward to seeing what he does with the role.
But what interested me most about the trailer were the final three seconds. The music of the trailer gradually builds to a climax that cuts out as a disembodied voice counts down from ten (that part gives me chills every time I see it). The countdown completes and we get a swell of music that crashes as the title and an image of the mocking-jay float onto the screen. As the crash of music fades, we hear someone whistling a haunting four note melody. And it’s this melody that really caught my interest.
For those of you who’ve read the books, you know what that melody is and why it’s important. Those four notes have a profound emotional resonance for the characters within the story. But here’s the thing…will it work in the film? Without giving too much away, the melody is supposed to be a call to workers that their day is done and it’s time to come in from the fields. However, for reasons I will not spoil here, the melody takes on a gravity far beyond “It’s quittin’ time!” It comes to represent sorrow, unity, and a call to arms. That’s a lot of responsibility for just four notes. And in prose, those four notes can handle it quite easily because the reader never actually hears the melody (except for whatever she imagines it to be). But in the film, those notes become a reality. And that’s where things get difficult. How do you create a melody that both sounds like a work whistle AND a haunting refrain that represents a cauldron of roiling, bittersweet emotions using just four notes?
Let’s look at a another cinematic melody that most of you are probably familiar with: the one from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. From my understanding, there was some debate over how many notes that melody should have (I think I heard about this from some DVD commentary, but I haven’t been able to find any corroborating evidence for this so for those of you more in the know than I am, please feel free to correct me in comments). Apparently, five notes weren’t enough to properly convey a melody. Of course, John Williams figured out how to do it because, well, he’s John f*cking Williams. But if it’s a struggle to compose an efficient melody with five notes, imagine what it would be like with only four.
Now, this is the moment when everyone starts giving me examples of popular, moving four note melodies (please do). But my point isn’t that it’s impossible, only that it’s extremely difficult. However, what I do find fascinating about only having four notes to work with is that it opens up multiple musical possibilities that may help capture the many-faceted nuances the melody is supposed to have. The four notes in the melody (G, A, A#, D) are shared by a variety of key signatures. So those same notes could elicit several different moods, depending on the music (if any) is being played underneath them.
Since this melody, and music in general, plays a big role in The Hunger Games, James Newton Howard definitely has his work cut out for him. It’s hard to tell from just those final three seconds if this melody can carry the weight it needs to, so I’ll reserve judgment until after I see the film.
In the comments, let me know which songwriter you would tap for writing the music for The Hanging Tree.