Sound Worlds, Hyperrealism and Disorientation in The Hunger Games

Note: This is an assignment for my course “Action Film and the Soundtrack.”

The first Hunger Games film occupies an interesting place in the history of young adult film adaptations. It’s such an obvious choice for one, given its focus on teens battling to the death in a dystopian future America. Yet, from the start, it’s not directed at all like an action film. It feels like a period drama or documentary: It opens on an explanation of the titular Games’ founding, then dunks us into a news report with the host and gamemaster discussing its history. It has a distant, faded look to it over mysterious, minor-key music, giving the impression of the exotic and otherworldly. Then, it flashes to Katniss comforting her sister in District 12, with no explanation for the new viewer how the two images are related. This juxtaposition is important, however. It sets up clearly the two very different worlds in the movies’ Panem: the luxury of the Capitol and the abject, rural poverty of most of the Districts, which is also simulated in the Hunger Games arena.

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The disorientation is visual, too — here’s how we first see the Cornucopia through Katniss’s eyes.

This is reflected in the sound landscapes for the respective environments of the film. While the plot structure of The Hunger Games could be debated, the settings divide the film into roughly three sections: the District 12 portions, the ones in the Capitol where the Tributes are paraded before the ruling classes and train in luxury, and the actual battle in the arena that takes up the bulk of the film. After the film’s very memorable and unusual opening sequence, where lilting folk-like melodies and drone score sounds dominate, it was strange to me that once Katniss and Peeta arrived in the Capitol, there was hardly any memorable use of sound in the film. The exceptions were usually diegetic (sounds the characters are hearing in the film), like the triumphant fanfares for the characters as they appeared onstage for their interviews and showed off their costumes. This immediately changed when the film dunked the characters into the arena for the opening bloodbath.

This is built up to with Katniss’s entrance into the arena. The sterile white of their plane, and then in the room where Katniss meets with Cinna for the last time before entering her tube, are closer to the Capitol’s removed luxury than the wilds of District 12. We know the stakes are different now because of the role of the camera and, especially, the soundtrack. There are several key moments when the sound effects drop into a sort of “hyper-realism,” when their volume is amplified beyond how they would in real life in a way that feels much more immediate. In these scenes, this especially comes with the closing of doors: to the plane taking them to the arena, and to the tube finally dropping them in it. The latter involves a close-up of Katniss’s face, showing her panic as she’s separated from Cinna, and realizes how soon she will be in danger. It happens at the exact same moment as the thud. The Capitol scene has other close-ups of Katniss’s face, and moments when the sound zooms in and out, to emphasize her perspective, but the confluence is never that striking until the moment she’s about to drop into the arena.

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As the games begin, the sound effects zoom out for more emphasis on the drone-like musical score, similar to the sounds we heard as the film opened. It brings the viewer back to that world through sound, as well as visuals, with the interesting tricks it plays with perspective: jumping back and forth between different tributes, following Katniss’s eyes. The lack of emphasis on the actual sounds for an overarching soundtrack puts us in Katniss’s mind, overwhelmed by the larger proceedings rather than zeroing in on specific events or people. As people jump into action and Katniss realizes it’s time to run away, the music changes to percussion and strings in the style of minimalist phasing, emphasizing both the character’s movements and the whooshing, rapid change of perspectives. It also adds to the disorientation, with how phasing works by slowly moving the different instruments’ voices apart and together. It messes with the listener’s sense of time, and works in The Hunger Games to put them in Katniss’s mind. It combines urgentness (percussive timbres, repetitive rhythms) and helplessness (the uncontrollable time shifts of the phasing).

I had trouble capturing a good screenshot from this scene. I think this shot of Thresh running gives you an idea of why.

I had trouble capturing a good screenshot from this scene. I think this shot of Thresh running gives you an idea of why.

Disorientation is a strange tactic to use in blockbuster action films, designed to be crowd-pleasers. Yet The Hunger Games is hardly alone in this, with it also marking a key feature of post-apocalyptic films like Mad Max: Fury Road. A huge chunk of that film’s opening sequence uses sound and cinematography to put the viewer in Max’s mind, and visually depict his desperate life. It adds to the urgency of the situation in a way that’s more exciting, but also makes the viewer more uncomfortable. It immediately signaled to me when I first saw Fury Road in features that this experience would be like no other action film I had seen. Still, Fury Road later fits into genre conventions in a way The Hunger Games do not.

The Hunger Games uses those effects in a different way, one that doesn’t feel like “action film” directing. The emphasis is consistently on the main character’s psychology and the despondence of her situation, not on exciting fights. Mad Max does at least make action sequences viscerally thrilling, panning out in those moments to show us the scope of the battle, or focusing on characters wielding weapons and how they do it. The Hunger Games plays it all close to Katniss and other important characters’ heads, which makes the action viscerally upsetting and disgusting. This is through the sound’s focus on her perspective, whether she’s hallucinating from wasp stings or just looking for a way out of a tree. We feel her discomfort. Nowhere are we more immediately aware of it than the first scenes in the arena, dunked into this sound world in a way that feels disorienting coming from the restrained world of the Capitol. And yet, there’s some déjà vu (or déjà entendu), with the sonic callbacks to the opening scenes in District 12.

Part of why Katniss wins is that, unlike some of the other tributes (such as the Careers), her daily existence in impoverished, rural District 12 is not that different from life in the arena. (As they’re coached during training, survival skills help far more than weapons.) This is reflected in the sonic atmospheres of District 12/the Arena compared to the Capitol. Many dystopian worlds paint their false idylls as lacking music, the language of color and fun. (The most obvious YA example of this is The Giver–the book, not the film.) The Hunger Games is not among those: the people of the Capitol have culture and amusement aplenty. They even visually resemble the aristocracy of the late 19th-century Gilded Age. Still, there’s a huge difference between their sound for entertainment, and the sounds of survival, of existing out in nature and relying on its unpredictability. This is something The Hunger Games goes out of its way to explore, with its focus on Katniss’s perspective as she navigates these different worlds. We not only see but hear the stark divide between Panem’s different classes, sounding the cue for rebellion.

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