Saturday, 13 August 2016

Why The Lion King Has Nothing To Do With Hamlet

Yes, it's a little direct as titles go, but this really needs to be covered.

When it comes to themes or adapted ideas, you can't find anyone more popular than Shakespeare. Everything from core genre tropes to story concepts have been derived from his works, with the term Romeo and Juliet story often being substituted in place of "romance tale" or the like. What you tend to find more than anything else however, is that a diverse number of tales are seen as loose adaptations of the great playwright's works. From Forbidden Planet's elements allegedly lifted from The Tempest to the more direct comparison between Akira Kurosawa's films and Macbeth, King Lear and others, there are no shortage of works to choose from. However, there is one so famous just about anyone in the general public will cite it at the drop of the hat - The Lion King and Hamlet. The only problem is, the two have little to nothing to do with one another.

Now, at first glance it's clear to see just why this comparison might be made. The core story surrounds a prince whose father has been murdered by his uncle. His father's ghost eventually contacts him and urges him to kill his uncle, ending his reign before he can inflict further damage. The uncle then tries to claim the queen for himself to further cement his position, even as things crumble about him. You also have a series of side characters which include two best friends who deliver a series of gags, a very strained relationship with his lover, and a wise if rather muddled wisdom dispensing man at his side. At a stretch you could even argue the whole impending war angle is present in both films thanks to some brief mentions of invasion. Okay, so far so good, both are fairly identical to one another, but what about the rest of it?

Let's keep things simple and focus most of this article upon our protagonists. While they certainly have the same drive for revenge, how they react to their duty to the throne is wildly different. When we're introduced to Simba as a child in The Lion King, he's impulsive, driven and very eager to take the position for himself. In fact, we get a whole song and dance routine about just how desperately he wants to be king, just to spell things out to the audience. Hamlet on the other hand is the polar opposite, as he spends far more time questioning his own mortality, morbidly obsessed with death itself and even shows a great deal of reluctance to take any action. Hell, at times he's downright neurotic when it comes to his inner dialogue. It takes the overwhelming blame for his father's death to force Simba into inaction, and the second he realises his father is actively asking him to fix things, he heads straight back. Hamlet, on the other hand, all but has to be dragged kicking and screaming into performing his revenge plot at many points.

Consider, then, how each of them went about their appointed tasks as well. Simba basically heads right back, confronts Scar (an uncle so obviously evil it's amazing they just didn't up and name him Herman von Skeletor) before outing him as the traitor. Hamlet on the other hand, goes about it in a much more Song of Ice and Fire way of doing things. He gets his aforementioned lifelong friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, executed in order to save himself from the same fate, stabs Polonius through a curtain, and tries to go about it in a less direct route. Ironically, this ends up actually doing far more harm than good, inflicting far more casualties and a much darker end than Simba's "I'M HERE! WHERE'S THE UNCLE I NEED TO MURDER!?" approach.

While some have argued that Simba's success is thanks to the film being much more Disney (AKA child) orientated, there are issues even once you omit this. You see, Simba's main goal and what the film drives home time and time again is that he needs to be king and to guide his people to a better future. By comparison, all his father's ghost asks of Hamlet is that he rid the kingdom of the maniac who bumped him off. Really, when it comes down to it, all he is being asked to do is just murder King Claudius and be done with it, rather than reinforcing any desire for him to rule. Quoting the entire conversation between the two would take up a rather large chunk of this article, but look into this particular bit:

"Oh, horrible, oh, horrible, most horrible!
If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not.
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damnèd incest.
But howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge
To prick and sting her. Fare thee well at once.
The glowworm shows the matin to be near,
And 'gins to pale his uneffectual fire.
Adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember me."

So far as we can tell from his, he's fine with his mother remarrying or another taking the throne, so long as his backstabbing brother his bumped off and his mother isn't involved. It never really expands much further beyond this. In The Lion King, the main theme is focused upon kingship, concentrated upon the right to rule and Simba's intended role in the world. Multiple scenes are devoted to Simba being told that he needs to take the metaphorical crown for himself, training him to be king, informing him of the way of the world and that it is his duty to guide the plains at the head of his tribe. With him gone, everything goes to hell, and the film makes it clear that things can only be set right once he sits down and becomes king. The entire finale of the film is spent establishing that everything is right now he's back, and the entire ghostly conversation with his father reinforces this fact:

"Simba, you have forgotten me.
You have forgotten who you are and so have forgotten me. Look inside yourself Simba. You are more than what you have become. You must take your place in the Circle of life.
Remember who you are. 
You are my son and the one true king. 
Remember who you are.
Remember. Remember. Remember."

When it comes down to it, like so many elements within these films, the actual speech itself is the polar opposite of the one from Hamlet. In this, Mufasa makes it very clear that he needs Simba to take his place, but somehow forgets to mention that Scar hurled him into a ravine after admitting he wanted him dead.  In retrospect it's a little dumb, and a rather large logical plot hole in an otherwise classic film, but the point is clear - It's more important Simba quit shirking his responsibilities and get on with his job than just getting revenge. Even the closest thing the film has to Hamlet's own fears and reluctance to take any position of authority relates more to hedonism than something so truly dark, further reinforcing this theme of responsibility.

The differences only get more and more obvious once you look into the other characters and their actions within each story; their relationships as well. When it comes down to it, Ophelia and Nala have even less in common than Hamlet and Simba. Ophelia is a noblewoman and daughter of Polonius. Despite loving Halmet, she is driven away from involving herself with him thanks to both his own actions, and prompting by Polonius and brother Laertes. This causes her to go insane, and after her father's murder tips her over the edge, she drowns herself. Nala not only survives the film, goes on to be queen and sires a child, and is distinctly less bonkers by the end, but she's also less inactive. She becomes a core part of the reason why Simba returns, remains actively engaged throughout the second act and her father isn't anyone of importance. If he were, and if we paired up character roles, he would be this guy:

In the years before DeviantArt's horrors plagued the internet, it's hard to imagine anyone creating the animated spawn of a lion and a mandrill. As mentioned before,  the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern equivalents, Timon and Pumbaa, survive their film and don't align themselves with the villain. Rafiki doesn't turn upon Simba or end up accidentally murdered, and Scar doesn't wed nor poison Sarabi. 

What's more, many of the secondary characters simply don't match up when you compare one story to the next. In The Lion King there is no Gravedigger, no trio of sentries at Elsinore, no one akin to Yorick in any respect, and instead you have a trio of villainous hyenas. Well, that and Zazu, as his role seems to cross over somewhat with that of Rafiki if you try to compare him with anyone in Hamlet at all. Much more could be said given both the starting point of each story, the act structure and the general outcome, but the point should be clear - Each story simply does not match up with the other. Even the most cursory of examinations proves this, and yet the public continues to consider The Lion King to be an adaptation of Hamlet with talking animals.

So, what's the point of all this anyway? While this is admittedly born out of personal frustration more than anything else here, having seen this one time too many, the point relates far more to how certain stories intersect with one another. Very little is truly, completely, original these days and many, many times you will often find entirely different works retaining similar qualities to one another. This can all too often lead to an accusation of plagarism or failing to do something truly new, lessening another work while insulting a creator. It's a point we previously discussed when comparing the Stormcast Eternals and Adeptus Astartes to one another, but it needs to be reiterated here and covered in light of how often certain concepts are repeated.

While this blog might bring up plagarism or copying another's works on occasion, that tends to come down to a few key points. It isn't so much two people having the same idea, even a relatively close one, so much as how they interact or work with one another. If one writer attempts to erase or directly contradict another's creation while enforcing his own, that makes it rather simple, especially when they're within the same setting. More often than not though, people should instead be looking into what they offer. Does the writer use those tropes and ideas as building blocks for something new, and if so what does he forge from them? After all, you could argue that Aliens and Predator are extremely similar given their staging, characters and foe, but the setting, story and development keeps them from ever seeming like a copy of one another. It's not about reinventing the very idea of his genre, but what work he can produce to put a new spin on it and make it stand out. 

Long story short, it's why i'll personally defend the Stormcast Eternals to the death; while at the same time dragging Disney's Star Wars over the coals until their creators quit stealing from the Expanded Universe. Or, at the very least, crediting those they're stealing them from. Honestly Chuck Wendig, did you think you could create a Wraith Squadron rip-off by just naming it "Phantom Squadron" instead?


  1. This is an odd article, and truthfully I've never thought of Lion King as a Hamlet adaptation. I can see the inspiration and influence, but I can also see the jumping off point, which certainly isn't something new (when writing short stories I've also based some of them off of older ideas) and even as far as adaptations go, there's a limit before it breaks off and becomes its own thing.

    1. Yeah, i'll admit it's a bit of a different thing than what we usually cover, but it's just one of those comments I kept hearing until it really got on my nerves. Rather than being our usual work it's just more of something to point to in arguments and prove how the guy is wrong, or at least to cite points here and there. There's nothing wrong with the film of course, but I really hate it when people claim something is a direct adaptation of something else when there's barely a real comparison to be made.