The Hunger Games franchise owes as much to its rich soundscape as it does to its sweeping, dystopian visuals. The trailer for the latest instalment, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, reinstates the familiar birdcall whistle, originally deployed by the doomed tribute Rue (Amandla Stenberg) and used as a coded signal during the various deathmatch sequences. The trailer also incorporates strains of a song that many fans will be familiar with: The Hanging Tree.
In terms of the movies, we first heard The Hanging Tree when it was performed by Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen in 2014's The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part I. Given that The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a prequel movie, depicting how Panem's ruthless President Snow (Tom Blyth) came to power, we're evidently going to get the origin story of the song itself. This is intrinsically tied to the fate of another important character, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), whose relationship with Snow is the spark that lights the proverbial tinder.
Here's the timeline of how The Hanging Tree came to be, and its wider importance on the Hunger Games saga.
Who originally composed and performed The Hanging Tree?
Returning to Suzanne Collins' source novel, The Hanging Tree is originally the creation of Lucy Gray Baird, a folk musician from District 12. In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Lucy is selected as the District 12 tribute for the 10th annual Hunger Games. Lucy belongs to a nomadic troubadour group known as the Coveys who are famed for passing down their instrumental skills from generation to generation.
Covey is a word that refers to a flock of birds and, interestingly, the Covey are particularly fascinated by mockingjays. In fact, their musical range is often compared to that of the mockingjay. Although they technically belong to District 12, the Covey continues to be a band apart, operating on their own steam while performing at important events and ceremonies like weddings. Even so, many people within District 12 regard them with suspicion.
The Covey is a regular fixture at the Hob, District 12's black market arena. Eventually, however, all music is banned from the Hob by the Commander of the Capitol's Peacekeepers who fear that music will incite insurrection and violence.
Avoiding spoilers, The Hanging Tree is inspired by the execution of an important character in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. A mournful Lucy later adapts its meaning to somebody else in her life (again, no spoilers), securing the song's infamy as it passes into Panem lore.
Given Rachel Zegler's musical chops, having enjoyed a starring role as Maria in Steven Spielberg's West Side Story remake, she is surely the perfect casting for the tenacious and musically talented Lucy Gray Baird. Director Francis Lawrence explains: “[Lucy Gray] loves crowds. She knows how to play crowds and manipulate people.”
Listen to Rachel Zegler's performance of the song in the following video.
What is the relationship between Lucy and Coriolanus Snow?
The young Coriolanus Snow fears for the future of his once-artistocratic family after they fall on hard times in the wake of his father's death. Enrolled at the Capitol Academy, Snow then becomes embroiled in the creation of the 10th annual Hunger Games contest and is variously guided and manipulated by gamesmakers Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis) and Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), the latter of whom knew Coriolanus' father.
Snow is then assigned to mentor Lucy Gray Baird who arrests the attention of the masses after giving a musical performance at her reaping ceremony. Lucy is put forward as a favourite to win the Hunger Games and Snow sees her as a meal ticket to restore his family's glory. At the same time, he is well aware of the extent of his manipulation and the fact that Lucy's life continually hangs in the balance.
Despite their manifest differences, Coriolanus and Lucy fall in love. But can they make it work in the face of insurmountable odds?
How did Katniss Everdeen come to learn The Hanging Tree?
Some 60 years after the events of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, the song is memorised by District 12's Katniss Everdeen. Katniss originally learned the song from her father when she was a young girl. Her mother was appalled and castigated Katniss' father for exposing her to such a morbid piece of composition; although he later implored Katniss to forget the tune, it stuck in her mind. Katniss' friend and eventual lover Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) also became familiar with the song after he heard Katniss' father singing it while visiting his family's bakery.
That said, she only learned the true meaning of the lyrics when she was older, in particular the line, 'Wear a necklace of rope, side by side with me': namely, that the song was about a dead man calling for his lover to join him in death.
Come the events of Mockingjay - Part I and the older Katniss has already survived several skirmishes inside and outside the Panem arena. She's now embraced as the rebellious symbol known as the Mockingjay, with the potential to bring President Snow and his Capitol forces to their knees.
According to Katniss' mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), the song was the first memory Peeta associated with Katniss that did not trigger a "mental breakdown" after he was brainwashed by the Capitol.
While visiting District 12, Katniss uses The Hanging Tree as a remedy for Peeta's "Capitol-implanted hatred". She sings a breathy, folk-inflected version of it for her fellow rebels and it's soon adopted as part of a wider rebel propaganda strategy by Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the insurgent gamesmaker who is revealed to have been working for the rebel cause all along.
How did Plutarch Heavensbee change the Hanging Tree's lyrics?
Plutarch Heavensbee changes the pivotal lyric "A necklace of rope" to "A Necklace of hope" to further inspire the rebel cause. Plutarch and his allies, including Haymitch, the apparently benevolent Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), also shoot a propaganda video that shows Katniss performing the song.
In Mockingjay - Part I, the music on the soundtrack shifts from Jennifer Lawrence's performance to a mass vocal anthem of defiance sung by the District 5 rebels as they launch an all-out assault on the hydroelectric dam that powers the Capitol. The melody is then picked up ex-diegetically (in other words, the music exists outside the world of the movie) by composer James Newton Howard who adopts it as a stirring choral elegy that both laments and celebrates the bravery of District 5's sacrifice.
Where can we book tickets for the new Hunger Games movie?
Click the link below to book your tickets for The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. The movie is released on November 17th.