6. The Lion King
The Lion King is different to most of the other films on this list as it is not an adaptation in the same way the likes of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Rapunzel are, it is not an old folk tale re-written to be suitable for children. Nor is it born from a common motif in folk stories and fairy tales like The Princess and the Frog based on the idea of a prince being turned into a frog and needing a princess to kiss him to return to his human form.
It is perceived by many as being Disney’s only original story, when in fact instead of being based on an old European folk tale as many of our favourite Disney stories are, The Lion King has a more Shakespearian flavour as it is actually a (somewhat simplified) modern re-telling of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark most commonly known simply as Hamlet.
The longest of all Shakespeare’s plays, written around the turn of the 17th century (exact date is unknown) Hamlet follows the story of Prince Hamlet of Denmark whose father has recently died and his uncle Claudius has seized the throne marrying Hamlet’s mother Queen Gertrude and becoming King of Denmark. Hamlet returns from studying in Germany for his father’s funeral to find his mother and uncle have married; he along with the rest of the royal court believes that his father King Hamlet died from the bite of a poisonous snake. Hamlet enters a deep state of mourning for his father and his behaviour becomes increasingly erratic which begins to worry his mother and uncle.
The ghost of King Hamlet begins appearing around Castle Elsinore, first appearing to sentries Bernardo and Francisco, he later appears to Prince Hamlet, he tells his son how his death was caused by Claudius who poured poison in his ear whilst he slept. The ghost urges Prince Hamlet to avenge his death by killing King Claudius. Unsure whether the ghost is actually that of his father or just a seemingly random spirit tormenting him and tempting his to kill his uncle, Prince Hamlet begins to feign madness in order to get closer to Claudius and observe him without his intentions being realised. His friend Horatio is the only one who knows Hamlet’s madness is an act.
Queen Gertrude sends courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are also friends of Hamlet to try and get to the bottom of Hamlet’s strange behaviour as well as keeping an eye on him and distracting him from mourning his father’s death.
Still unconvinced the ghost is really the spirit of his father, Hamlet puts on a play for the court wherein a king is murdered by his brother, believing that Claudius’ reaction to the play will reveal the truth. After watching the play Claudius realises that Hamlet knows the truth and that his nephew/step-son is a threat. Hamlet finds Claudius alone praying and plans to kill him there and then but realises that killing him whilst praying may in fact save his soul rather than condemning him to hell, so saves his revenge for a later date.
Hamlet then turns his anger and attention to his mother berating her for marrying Claudius so soon after King Hamlet’s death, during their argument he notices movement behind one of the curtains, believing it to be Claudius hiding Hamlet stabs the curtain repeatedly, only to discover it was actually Polonius one of Claudius’ advisors and father of Ophelia and Laertes who was hiding. Queen Gertrude convinces the court that it was Hamlet’s insanity that caused him to kill Polonius and Claudius has him sent to England, accompanied by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with secret instructions for the King of England to have Hamlet tried for murder. Hamlet’s ship is attacked by pirates and he sails back to Denmark and he meets with Horatio.
In the mean time following her father’s death and Hamlet’s rejection, Ophelia has gone insane and whilst wondering around by the lake collecting wild flowers she falls into the lake and drowns. Her brother Laertes returns from Paris for the funeral and having learnt of Hamlet’s part in both his father and sister’s deaths challenges him to a duel – a fencing match.
Claudius sees an opportunity to get rid of Hamlet and convinces Laertes to use a sharp tipped sword which has been dipped in poison, he also adds poison to Hamlet’s drink just in case the sword plan does not work. During the duel things go wrong, both Hamlet and Laertes are injured with the poisoned sword, Gertrude accidentally drinks from the poisoned cup and dies, seeing his mother die Hamlet the kills Claudius before drinking the rest of the poisoned drink killing himself, leaving Horatio as the only one left standing.
Whilst The Lion King is not a direct adaptation ofHamlet it does follow the principle storyline, albeit with a much happier ending than Shakespeare’s version of events, although there are bits omitted from the Disney version, for example the scenes in the graveyard between Hamlet and the sextons, the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia which leads to her madness and subsequent death and the relationship between Gertrude and Claudius. There are also characters in The Lion King who are not a parallel of characters in Hamlet such as Rafiki and Zazu, whilst Rafiki does serve as an advisor his role is massively different from the role of Polonius in Hamlet. There is also no character to represent Ophelia and thus her storyline is omitted completely from The Lion King, and the character of Gertrude is Sarabi, but Sarabi’s role differs vastly from Gertrude’s.
In The Lion King, Simba, Mufasa and Scar serve as Prince Hamlet, King Hamlet and King Claudius respectively, Simba must avenge his father’s death and take his rightful place as King of the Pride Lands. Timon and Pumbaa act as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they keep an eye on Simba they’re adventures in the jungle much like Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s trip to England keeps him from his true cause of avenging his father’s death. Nala acts as Horatio, Simba’s friend focusing on his claim as rightful King of the Pride Lands, and just like Horatio is completely loyal to the person/lion they know to be the true heir to the throne. The character of Laertes is fulfilled by the hyenas who are used by Scar to do his bidding.
Whilst Hamlet is widely recognised as being Shakespeare’s most tragic tragedy The Lion Kinghas a much happier ending with only Scar dying at the end, Simba, Sarabi and the hyenas all survive and Simba takes his place as King of the Pride Lands and rules alongside Nala.