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The Story Beneath the Story


When you are enjoying “The Lion King,” you are actually admiring William Shakespeare’s work.

“The Lion King,” beneath its surface, is “Hamlet.”

The “Lion King” creators were very deliberate about modeling Simba’s story after Hamlet.. They wanted a familiar drama as a foundation for their animated, talking-animals-in-Africa musical epic. So, like Hamlet’s father, Mufasa is murdered by his own brother, who wants to take the throne. Like the Prince of Denmark, the Prince of the Savannah first runs from his responsibilities (“Hakuna matata”) after his father’s death, but later returns to avenge that death. In the end of both tales, the evil uncles wind up dead, though Simba shows more mercy than Hamlet.

More often, our stories copy other, older narratives without meaning to. “Avatar,” like “Dances with Wolves,” features a lost soldier who falls in love with the enemy and comes to sympathize with the colonized tribes. Betraying his own side.  

Another example is “Aliens,” James Cameron’s excellent sequel to the Ridley Scott’s outer-space horror movie. A very clever movie scholar named  Alasdair Spark notes that the resemblance between the “Aliens” scenario and America’s experience in Vietnam are too rich to ignore. Among them:

1. The Viet Cong / Alienshide in dark jungle and tunnels (and air-conditioning ducts) of an unknown country (unknown base/planet).

2. They kill US Marines (colonial Marines) who land by, and are rescued by helicopter.

3.  The troops are led by incompetent officers, and betrayed by civilian bureaucrats. 

4. Soldiers learn not to trust their ally (the South Vietnamese = the android).

5.  The conflict is a struggle between males (for territory) and a struggle between females (for children).

Lastly, a more advanced version of this concept is laid out by a brilliant scholar named Nalini Iyer. She calls them “masked fictions,” and believes these trap-door stories often concern empire. In particular, she looks at  domestic dramas like Jane Eyre and suggests that this is also a narrative of empire. An interview in which she explains this powerful concept can be found here:

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