Film series are a great way to tell a story that cannot be contained to a single film. Successful films usually end up getting sequels, but series are stories intended to be digested over the course of several films. The cast will (usually) stay the same throughout a series, but there is another important element that should remain consistent to help link each film to the next – the music.
While it is not a requirement to stick with a single composer throughout a series (and sometimes you have no choice but to change things up due to schedules and prior commitments), having a singular musical voice working on a film series helps keep a consistent feeling from film to film. Most film series have kept the same composer throughout the series, and the few that have changed composers from film to film had it fit the story or ultimately ended up returning to the original composer.
John Williams’ iconic theme for Star Wars is as memorable as the films themselves, as his commanding piece truly introduces you to a galaxy far, far away. Williams has a very distinct, bombastic style that is perfect for this intergalactic action adventure story, and it would have done the series a disservice to have anyone else come on to try and emulate the feeling and tone Williams established.
Director George Lucas took a risk when he decided to create a new trilogy that told the origin stories of some of the original three films’ classic characters, but he wisely kept Williams on board, who gave these films the necessary familiar elements and nods to the previous three films to tie everything together. This ability is best seen in how Williams slowly brings the Darth Vadar theme into Revenge of the Sith, as Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) gives in to the dark side. It is a subtle nod that adds needed layers and depths to such an expansive series.
Williams also created the scores for the Indiana Jones series (including the fourth film) and proved once again he is the master at creating music that can not only withstand the test of time, but also the length of a film series. Williams’ work in this series once again gave audiences an iconic theme and one that is synonymous with Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) himself. The Indiana Jones films are fun, and it’s that sense of fun that Williams is able to infuse into his music to help create a series that is as amusing as it is exciting. The big adventures featured in both Star Wars and Indiana Jones require a composer who can match what is happening on screen with scores that elevate the action (not overpower it) and Williams is a master at it.
The Lord of the Rings series takes audiences on a magical journey that starts in the quaint Shire and travels into the depths of evil and danger. A series like this needs music that can speak to the various characters and vast landscapes Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his friends encounter. But it also requires music that evokes all the different emotions explored throughout the series from victory to defeat to fear to happiness.
Luckily, Howard Shore has a way of making his music feel like a character in its own right ranging from the happy, almost skipping sounding music that introduces you to this world to the darker, more foreboding instrumentation the score evolves into as the characters get closer to facing the maker of the One Ring. With so many characters and different landscapes that make up this series, it can be easy to get overwhelmed, but Shore wisely has his music reflect the film’s main character, Frodo, who also works as the center point of this epic journey.
Not all series stick with a single composer, however, as proven by the Harry Potter series, which changed composers every few films. Most of the composers who worked on the series (including Williams, Nicholas Hopper and Alexandre Desplat) worked on at least two consecutive films (except for Patrick Doyle, who only composed one film in the series). This approach gave each composer a bit of time to establish their sound on the series instead of having a different composer on each of the eight films in the series.
Yet the Harry Potter series actually lends itself to having a variety of composers creating the music because the series spans such a great length of time (from the leads starting out as children and growing into young adults) as the story itself descends into darker and darker territory. Having different composers work on a series can be tricky if each composer tries to emulate what the previous composer did (while also putting their own spin on things), but the Harry Potter series changed enough from film to film that having a slightly new voice actually worked to add to the story rather than muddle it.
This trap happened with the Twilight series, which had a different composer work on each film, starting with Carter Burwell, then Desplat, then Shore. The subtle themes and sound Burwell established in the first film were never successfully continued by the more layered Desplat or the commanding Shore. In the end, the series returned to Burwell and had him compose the score for the final two films in the series. All three composers have very different styles that gave each film in this series its own distinct feeling, but almost made it feel like you were starting a new journey (that happened to have familiar faces) with each film instead of continuing on and, worse, caused the series to feel musically disjointed.
Unlike the Harry Potter and Twilight series, The Hunger Games is bringing the YA genre to the big screen with a single composer. James Newton Howard composed the first two films, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, and will be completing the series with Mockingjay Part 1 and Part 2. The Hunger Games tackles some series issues and heavy themes, making the music an integral part as it works to keep a human and emotional element present in the face of this otherwise extreme environment. Children being forced to fight to the death in an arena that is televised for all to watch is an intriguing (and horrifying) idea, but what makes this story interesting and compelling is how all the different characters (regardless of district or place in the arena) react to this reality. Howard successfully created a score that works in both the film’s more quiet and action packed moments, but most importantly, used subtle elements (like Ru’s whistle) as a musical reminders that the core of this story is how everyone is simply trying to survive.
Music helps tie a series together as the story evolves from film to film and can become an important element when hinting at certain characters and changes throughout a story. A series like Harry Potter actually benefited from changing the composers thanks to the nature of the story and the way the characters grew over the span of the series. But when the Twilight series tried to mix things up, the slightly different styles of each composer ended up being more distracting than continuous. Like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games will be sticking with the singular composer approach and maybe in time, Howard’s score for the dystopian adventure will join the ranks of the now iconic scores from these other film series.