The Lion King

The Lion King

Hamlet and the Myth of Happy Vengeance

Disney does a knockoff of Shakespeare and gives Hamlet a happy ending.

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You already know the story. The king’s brother secretly kills the king then takes the king’s place, ruling the kingdom and marrying the king’s wife. The king’s son gets disturbed about the whole thing, even before he suspects his uncle’s guilt, and after a period of exile returns to successfully avenge his father’s death.

You think I’m talking about Hamlet, don’t you? I’m really talking about The Lion King. That’s right, Disney ripped off Shakespeare for the plot of their last successful traditionally animated film.

The important thing to note, of course, are the differences between The Lion King and Hamlet, and the most important differences are found in the ending. In Hamlet the king’s son, his mother, his lover, her father, and two of his close associates all wind up dead. The best thing to be said about the situation is that “justice” is served—the murderer is dead—but by the end of the play the audience wonders just what the point was of all these other deaths, and if they were worth the eventual administration of justice. I think this sense of the futility of vengeance speaks a lot about the difference between Shakespeare’s time and our own, and tells us something about Disney’s reworking of the plot of Hamlet beyond the obvious fact that it was written for a younger audience.

The Lion King, of course, is Hamlet with a happy ending. It’s yet another proof that real, unqualified, remorseful tragedy has been banished from American mass market cinema. Even Darth Vader “got saved.” Going into detail about specific plot elements, the king’s son in The Lion King isn’t bothered at all by the fact that Mom is sleeping with Uncle King. Mom and uncle, in fact, don’t even seem to be sexual beings. Simba doesn’t begin to suspect his uncle’s guilt until he confesses at the end. The son’s return is motivated purely by a desire to take his rightful place as king. Furthermore, he lives after successfully killing his usurping uncle and, instead of seeing his girlfriend commit suicide, ends up happily married to her. The film ends where it began, with the public presentation of the new royal children heralding the restoration of the kingdom and the “circle of life.”

Disney could credibly rewrite Hamlet in this way—in fact, the writers were virtually required by their target audience to do so—because so far as we’re concerned, the consequences of moral failure, violence, and vengeance are never permanent. No wonder tragedy is virtually dead in American cinema. “Sin” has been banished from our vocabulary, sexual transgressions have no consequence (is sexual transgression even possible between consenting adults?), and the ultimate consequences of even murder are limited to the brief period of time that the murderer is left in charge. The purging fires at the end of The Lion King, even the fires of vengeance, leave no scars. Violence and vengeance are means to an end that cause only the guilty to suffer, ultimately ushering in renewal and restoration without any ugly residue of lasting consequence.

This is starting to sound all too familiar. I’m writing this three days after the latest round of 9/11 vigils, patriotic speeches, “we’ll-never-forgets” (it’s not a matter of never forgetting, it’s a matter of being allowed to stop thinking about it for even a single day), after months of news about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the aftermath that never seems to end—and never mind the seemingly endless mutual retaliation between Israelis and Palestinians.

We can make the world a better place simply by killing off the bad guys. Right. I can think of nothing more appropriate than a reminder of the futility of vengeance around the time of September 11. It’s nice to know Bin Laden and the U.S. government have so much in common. It’s even nicer to know that Disney, and the rest of the U.S. media, is there right behind them both.

I think we need more Hamlet and less Lion King, more real tragedy with permanent consequences and fewer happy endings. It just seems more like real life.

Jim Rovira is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Drew University in Madison, NJ. Feel free to visit his homepage.
posted by editor ::: September 16, 2003 ::: philms :::