When asked to name the best movie soundtrack of their teen years, twentysomethings often pick something from the Twilight franchise—which, fair! Those movies gave us “Roslyn” by St. Vincent and Bon Iver, and “Decode” by Paramore; there were some veritable bops written for those garbage films. But for my money, there’s a different woman-led, YA novel-adapted franchise that deserves to be in this conversation: The Hunger Games.
For a quartet of films about impoverished teens forcibly murdering other impoverished teens—and then revolting against this edict, leading to the death of even more impoverished teens—the fact that their soundtracks were a haven for some of the mid-2010s’ biggest pop acts is bizarre, in hindsight. Did the story of a 16-year-old (Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence) volunteering to die in the place of her younger sister resonate with known older sister Taylor Swift, who recorded two separate tracks for the first movie? What is it about a film in which a young woman watches her best friend (Liam Hemsworth’s Gale Hawthorne) be whipped in a public square that screams “Coldplay”?
The answer apparently offered by Republic Records, the major label that produced the four films’ soundtracks, was “everything.” Because as much as we remember The Hunger Games for the series’ gripping story, Jennifer Lawrence’s excellent, star-making performance as Katniss, and the persistent, to-me-inscrutable thirst for her boyfriend Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), its music became just as much of a defining factor. So much so, in fact, that the new film adaptation of its prequel is, in many ways, a musical. It’s not a jukebox musical, either—The Hunger Games has always been chock full of songs written and performed by its characters too.
Even before The Hunger Games hit theaters in 2012, author Suzanne Collins seemed aware of the music tie-in potential of her novel trilogy. But instead of pulling a page from the Stephenie Meyer playbook of posting playlists for each Twilight book on her website, Collins went a step further: She wrote some actual songs. Well, lyrics, anyway—but that’s still more than Meyer throwing a bunch of Muse tracks into PureVolume and calling it a day.
The first book featured what’s known as “Rue’s Lullaby,” which Katniss sings to young fellow-Hunger Games combatant Rue (Amandla Stenberg) as she dies. The tragic moment is one of both the book and film’s most memorable, in no small part due to the lyrics: “Here it’s safe/ Here it’s warm/ Here the daisies guard you from harm,” sang Katniss, lying. (Those daisies certainly didn’t keep Rue from any harm, Miss Everdeen!)
More famously, however, is what’s become the franchise’s unofficial theme song: “The Hanging Tree,” which Katniss sings in Mockingjay. The mournful ballad encapsulates the pain that Katniss has suffered up to that point, as she works toward staging a revolution against the tyrannical President Coriolanus Snow (played by Donald Sutherland in the films). She claims that it’s a tune passed onto her by her father, a battlecry meant to rouse starving, exhausted troops. That it does, especially as Katniss helps the song carry throughout Panem to inspire others to join their insurgency.
It must be said that all the singing required of her was miserable for the self-deprecating Lawrence, as she made clear on numerous occasions. Still, Lawrence’s performance of “The Hanging Tree” reached the Billboard charts due to its haunting appearance in 2014’s Mockingjay—Part 1 (another of those mid-2010s hallmarks that the franchise bears). Collins and the team working on the film (including the pop-folk band the Lumineers, which helped beef up the song) clearly knew what they had with “The Hanging Tree,” based on just her lyrics alone.
“The Hanging Tree” went on to become such a core part of The Hunger Games franchise that Collins pretty much wrote an entire book to capitalize upon its popularity. Okay, that’s not the most fair description of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, the 2020 prequel novel starring not Katniss, but a younger Coriolanus. The story ostensibly serves the purpose of explaining not only how Snow came to power, but also how the Hunger Games became the brutal, widely televised spectacle that they are when Katniss first joins them. Whether that premise is engaging depends on whether you can stomach a completely uncharismatic pre-villain’s repetitive and explanatory inner monologue, which is both emotionally inconsistent and dull.
The real reason to read (or, now, watch) Songbirds and Snakes is for Lucy Gray Baird, who’s played by Rachel Zegler in the recently released film. That casting should say it all: Collins goes heavy on the music in the novel. Somewhat reminiscent of the NaNoWriMo entry I wrote in 2010, in which I used entire chunks of lyrics to songs I liked in order to reach the requisite 50,000 words, Collins slathers the story in musical moments. When we first meet Lucy Gray, she’s picked to participate in this year’s Hunger Games in a televised event known as the reaping. Her response is to perform a defiant ditty about how “nothing you can take from me was ever worth keeping.” It immediately wins her fans across Panem, who watch the moment live. That includes Corio, who eventually is tasked with helping Lucy Gray during the Games. In order to do so, he encourages her to keep on singing.
Collins knowingly wrote a new Hunger Games story starring a chanteuse, and you expect me to believe that wasn’t to help out the future producers of the inevitable adaptation of the book? Other songs Lucy Gray performs throughout the book include the appropriately titled, “The Ballad of Lucy Gray Baird,” a plucky story-song directed toward a back-stabbing boyfriend. (His name is Billy Taupe. Collins infamously has a certain … way with names.) There’s the quiet “The Old Therebefore,” which she sings during the Games in order to keep murderous snakes at bay. And in the book’s third, final section, the entire story becomes equal-parts bootcamp drama and folksy hoedown, as Lucy Gray returns home to rejoin her traveling band, the Covey. Collins treats us to multiple, very long scenes of Lucy Gray singing songs to a rapt audience.
There are no fewer than five songs that Lucy Gray and the Covey sing during this part of the novel, and it is exhausting. But when the book arrives at a scene that gives more context to Mockingjay’s “The Hanging Tree” moment, it’s genuinely touching. We learn that Lucy Gray is the one who wrote the original song, and she performs it near a lake, where she, the Covey, and Coriolanus are collecting katniss—the plant, that is. It’s a nice, if blatantly obvious, wink at the fans who still love the series, all these years later.
As Lucy Gray in the film, Zegler is winsome, bringing her West Side Story-level pipes back to the screen for the first time. She imbues Lucy Gray with a sense of strength and theatricality that makes her incredibly fun, even emotional to watch. While reading pages of lyrics isn’t fun, hearing Zegler bring them to life is among the film’s accomplishments. She’s got the kind of voice that will make you run straight to Spotify after the 156-minute movie is over.
And in further keeping with the Hunger Games film tradition of enlisting Pop Object du Jour for the official companion soundtrack, Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes features an original Olivia Rodrigo track. “Can’t Catch Me Now” marks the latest successful single in an unbroken streak this year, a powerful song with a quietly angry bite to it. Inspired by Lucy Gray’s fierce will to live in an impossible situation, Rodrigo sings of “blood on the side of the mountain” and “the bitter taste of fury.” While we don’t get any Zegler on the track, it’s easy to imagine Lucy Gray herself singing “Can’t Catch Me Now” to the fellow teens she’s forced to outwit in the Hunger Games’ arena.
While it’s still hard for me to believe that The Hunger Games, of all movies, had original compositions from Lorde, Sia, Imagine Dragons, and Christina Aguilera appear together on one soundtrack, it also highlights this indelible fact: Whether it’s on the page or the screen, wherever The Hunger Games goes, there’s a banger of a soundtrack alongside it.