It’s the circle of life: The Lion King returns

King of the jungle: In a famous scene, Mufasa instructs Simba on being a good ruler.

Are there only seven basic stories? After a long wait, Disney’s all-star, live action remake of the classic film is in cinemas. For many, the story’s timeless familiarity is its greatest appeal.

“Look, Simba. Everything the light touches is our kingdom.”

We know the words. We know the songs. And, tomorrow, thousands of people — young and old — will be rushing to cinemas up and down the country to relive it, all over again.

Disney has released a live-action remake of The Lion King, which was originally released as an animation in 1994. The film has attracted an all-star cast, including Beyoncé, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Donald Glover. James Earl Jones’s rich baritone voice returns as Mufasa, Simba’s tragic father.

What fewer people know is that The Lion King is based on the plot of Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, in which an evil uncle plots to kill his brother the king, and keep his nephew from power. It is another example of the way that stories borrow from each other, and change over time.

In his book, The Seven Basic Plots, English journalist Christopher Booker argues that there are actually only seven stories that we retell, over and over again, through film, TV, comic books and novels.

According to Booker’s theory, which he spent 34 years developing, the basic plots are: 1. Overcoming the Monster, 2. Rags to Riches, 3. The Quest, 4. Voyage and Return, 5. Rebirth, 6. Comedy and 7. Tragedy.

It may seem simplistic. What could the 1975 film Jaws, about great white shark plaguing an American town, have in common with the Old English poem Beowulf, one of the earliest works in the English language?

Quite a lot, it turns out. Both are examples of “overcoming-the-monster plots”, along the lines of: beast torments a community; hero fights the beast, and appears to succeed; the hero faces catastrophic set backs, but eventually triumphs in one climactic fight.

Interestingly, Booker singles out Hamlet as a plot that defies his theory. Some critics say Hamlet is a “rebirth plot” that goes wrong.

But when Disney made The Lion King, it made some fundamental, family-friendly changes to the Hamlet plot. Unlike Shakespeare’s Danish prince, Simba in The Lion King avenges his uncle and becomes the king he was destined to be.

I just can’t wait to be king

Are there really only seven plots? Booker admits that Hamlet doesn’t fit any of his classic seven plots, and he also criticises complex, great works by Anton Chekhov and James Joyce that also fail to fall into plot line. His theory might help with the very basics, but it’s problematic to reduce truly great stories into formulas.

But aren’t all stories based on universal themes that recur time and time again? Our hero faces a problem, overcomes challenges and (usually) emerges triumphant and changed. Just look at the plot parallels between Harry Potter, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. They all share classic narratives that humanity loves telling itself, time and time again, to make ourselves feel better.

You Decide

  1. Should Disney stop remaking classic films?
  2. Do you agree with Booker’s theory?

Activities

  1. Which Disney film is the best of all time? Write a persuasive, 30-second speech arguing your case.
  2. Research one of Booker’s seven plots. Make a plan for your own story that follows the tropes for that particular plot.

Some People Say...

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

Philip Pullman, British novelist of His Dark Materials trilogy

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The new re-make of The Lion King is directed by Jon Favreau, who also directed Disney’s live-action remake of The Jungle Book. It is the latest in a series of remakes of the studio’s classic animations including, most recently, Aladdin. The Lion King is also an award-winning musical that has been on London’s West End for 20 years.
What do we not know?
How many people will go to see The Lion King in its opening weekend. Some forecasts suggest it could be the highest-grossing July film on record. To break the current record, it would have to top 2011’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two, which took $169.1m (£135m) on its opening weekend.

Word Watch

Live-action
Usually, this means a film featuring real humans or animals instead of animation. In this case, the film was made using very sophisticated computer-generated technology.
Baritone
An adult male singing voice between tenor and bass. Also commonly used to mean a deep, rich voice.
Old English
The original form of English spoken during the Anglo-Saxon period (410-1066). It is almost impossible for modern readers to understand without a translation, as it is closer to modern German than modern English.
Climactic
An exciting ending.
Wrong
Hamlet fails to kill his uncle Claudius half-way through the play, when he has an opportunity.
Danish prince
Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark.
Anton Chekhov
A Russian playwright (1860-1904), whose famous works include The Seagull.
James Joyce
An Irish writer (1882-1941) who wrote Ulysses, a famously challenging novel.