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.

::: Jim Rovira

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

You think Im talking about Hamlet, dont you? Im really talking about The Lion King. Thats 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 kings 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 servedthe murderer is deadbut 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 Shakespeares time and our own, and tells us something about Disneys 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. Its 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 kings son in The Lion King isnt bothered at all by the fact that Mom is sleeping with Uncle King. Mom and uncle, in fact, dont even seem to be sexual beings. Simba doesnt begin to suspect his uncles guilt until he confesses at the end. The sons 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 wayin fact, the writers were virtually required by their target audience to do sobecause so far as were 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. Im writing this three days after the latest round of 9/11 vigils, patriotic speeches, well-never-forgets (its not a matter of never forgetting, its 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 endand 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. Its nice to know Bin Laden and the U.S. government have so much in common. Its 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 on Sep 16, 2003 | 6:01 pm

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