What is the story of The Lion King actually based on? The answer is probably nothing, but a lot of people will tell you it’s a little play called Hamlet. The thing is, they’re wrong. Saying The Lion King is only based on William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet totally misunderstands what makes Hamlet Hamlet. Here’s why.
Most parents experience a weird relationship with the stories we loved as children. Whether we’re freaked out by princess narratives or wondering about the hidden messages lurking in classic storybooks, a lot of parents tend to interrogate books, TV, and movies we devoured as kids once our own little ones are around. This can lead to innocent questions like Was that X-Men cartoon as good as I remember it? (Yes) Or, Is Mary Poppins racist? (Kind of.) But, all of this rummaging around in kids’ stories can also make you wonder where the stories come from in the first place. Which leads us back to The Lion King.
After a string of hits that started with The Little Mermaid in 1989, by 1994 The Lion King was the first big Disney animated feature at that time that wasn’t based — even loosely — on an existing fairy tale, myth or story. Instead, Simba’s quest to reclaim his animal kingdom from his evil Uncle Scar was, seemingly derived from the essential conflict of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In fact, if you Google “What is the Lion King based on?” the answer you’ll get, overwhelmingly, will be “Hamlet.” But, this is a huge misunderstanding of Hamlet for two reasons.
First, saying The Lion King is based on Hamlet is a superficial observation. Here are the primary ways The Lion King is like Hamlet. Ready?
- A prince, who in theory, could become king, has his kingdom taken away by an Uncle who killed the king, the prince’s father.
- That prince leaves the kingdom at some point.
- Sidekick characters provide comic relief.
- The ghost of the slain king’s father speaks to the young prince.
Everyone dies in the end.
Already you can see the problems. Just because Scar kills Mufasa in the same way Claudias kills King Hamlet, that doesn’t make the story analogous thematically, it just means similar plot things happen. Yes, Timon and Pumbaa bear a strong resemblance to the Hamlet characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but then again, so do R2-D2 and C-3PO in Star Wars. (If you want actual Shakespeare and Tom Stoppard shout-outs, watch the long-forgotten 2004 direct-to-video Lion King 1 & 1/2, which overtly pretends like its a Shakespeare thing. The early aughts were wild!) The point is, these are superficial similarities that address the set-up of the plot but have nothing to do with the aim of the story. The story of Hamlet is not really about a wide-eyed wanderer regaining his kingdom: It’s about a fairly arrogant dude cracking the fuck-up.
In Hamlet, the titular young prince is not similar to Simba at all insofar as he’s not likable and not a hero. He also, by the way, dies in the end, and his sometimes girlfriend, Ophelia, drowns herself. Remember that scene in both versions of The Lion King where Nala drowns herself because Simba can’t get his shit together? Yeah, you don’t.
Which brings us to the second way in which The Lion King is nothing like Hamlet. Let’s talk about that little scene in which Timon, Pumbaa, and Simba are walking on those logs? You know this is the scene that demonstrates the passage of time, in less than 15 seconds, Simba goes from being a lion cub to being a full-on lion king. Well, that 15 seconds, that moment of going from being a little impetuous cub to becoming an impetuous young adult — arguably — that 15 seconds, that’s Hamlet. The play is about introspection and, perhaps being lost in introspection. In The Lion King, the ghost of Hamlet’s father actually has its credentials questioned not just by Hamlet, but also by Horatio. In The Lion King, the ghost of Mufasa is just the ghost of Mufasa. So, if you squint, Black Panther could owe a little bit of its plot to The Lion King, which isn’t really a bad thing at all, but saying dead fathers asking living sons to avenge their kingdom always equals Hamlet is just false. The Ghost in Hamlet is shiftier than the ghost in The Lion King in the same way that Hamlet’s journey is shifter than just walking across a log and suddenly being a grown-up.
If anything, Hamlet is about “the undiscovered country,” which, in the play is pretty clearly a metaphor for death. Hamlet’s most famous speech “To be, or not to be,” also, is about the contemplation of death and whether or not life has any meaning if the face of it. In The Lion King, Simba does not hold the skull of Pumbaa and say “Alas poor Pumbaa, I knew him Rafiki!” Because if he did anything like that, then The Lion King would be a lot more like Hamlet than it is. If The Lion King embraced death, it would be Hamlet. But it’s the opposite.
The biggest and best song in The Lion King is “The Circle of Life.” This is what that movie is about. If Disney goes super dark and slips in a new remix called “The Circle of Death,” at that point, I will believe The Lion King is riffing on Hamlet. But until that happens, it’s safe to say that The Lion King tells a familiar story that simply works. And it works best if you leave Shakespeare’s ghost well outside of the jungle.