How The Lion King Got the Hero’s Journey Treatment: Thanks to Synchronicity and Some Help from a Plagiarist

Rafiki Simba Sunbeam

One of the joys of my professional life is that I had a chance to influence the original version of Disney’s The Lion King, and I have a plagiarist to thank for it.

It was 1992 and I had been working in the story department of Walt Disney Studios, primarily on the live action side, with little involvement with the separate, closed-off world of animation.  I had developed a reputation as a guy with broad general knowledge and a talent for ferreting out good story ideas from folklore and history.  Unknown to my bosses, I was working out the secret code for generating movie stories, believing I had found it in the “Hero’s Journey” pattern of myth and folktales identified by writer Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  I had discovered Campbell in film school at the same time the first Star Wars movie came out, and was convinced his myth-flavored memes had something to with the galactic cultural impact of the franchise.  As I entered the film business as a script reader, I found Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” concept a reliable tool for analyzing and troubleshooting contemporary movie stories as well as epic fantasies.

After working at Disney for some time, I set down my translation of Campbell’s ideas into the language of filmmaking, writing it up in the style of the corporate memos that were popular at the time and calling it A Practical Guide to the Hero with a Thousand Faces, a seven-page statement of the essential operations that create an effective story.

I distributed copies to my fellow script readers and a few executives at Disney but got little response.  One executive thought The Hero with a Thousand Faces was a novel I was trying to set up as a Disney movie project.

But before long, the corporate rumor mill buzzed with the news that the studio’s chief of production, Jeffrey Katzenberg, had come across a copy of my memo and recommended it at a meeting of top executives.  However, according to friends of mine who were in the room, the credit went to a mid-level exec who had plagiarized it by removing my cover sheet and submitting it under his name.

Katzenberg was excited about the memo.  By coincidence or synchronicity, he had encountered Campbell’s ideas at around the same time and thought my memo was a cogent restatement of his complex theory.  Boiled down to twelve bullet point operations, my spin on the Hero’s Journey was accessible to screenwriters and useful as a guideline for many of the studio’s projects, especially his baby under development over in Animation, then called King of the Jungle, but soon to become The Lion King.

As soon as I heard that Katzenberg was encouraging his execs and writers to pay heed to the memo’s message, I wrote him a letter, claiming authorship and asking for more involvement in the studio’s story-making process.  This was a bold and risky move, jumping over many levels in the chain of command and penetrating the sacred veil of the inner circle of power, which was as forbidding as the disembodied head of Oz the Great and Powerful.  To my amazement, he called me as soon as he received the letter, and told me there was a place for me in the recently-revived animation department.  They were on a roll after the success of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin and excitement was high over the next major project, Pocahontas.  But I was sent to work with the group developing King of the Jungle, considered to be the B team, with more modest expectations.

I wasn’t sure how far my Practical Guide memo had penetrated into corporate culture and was pretty sure I would have to do a job of salesmanship to explain the virtues of my way of conceiving a story, but this turned out to be unnecessary.  I could see as soon as I walked in that they had already digested The Memo, for there, on an official Disney Animation corkboard, was pinned the entire storyboard for King of the Jungle, with the twelve stages of the Hero’s Journey clearly marked as signposts.

I later learned Katzenberg himself had urged that his writers, directors and top animators read The Memo which seemed in his mind to be a good match for the needs of this story.  According to studio legend, the story that became The Lion King had a personal element for Katzenberg, reflecting in some way the deep emotions he remembered from a fateful moment in his own coming of age.  Of course, the script also drew on other sources, including Disney’s classic Bambi, a bit of King Arthur and even Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

I was summoned to a presentation of King of the Jungle’s story board, acted out in the grand Disney tradition by directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff who took on the parts of all the characters while they referred to preliminary drawings pinned to long corkboards.  In the audience were some story consultants like myself, the writers and department heads and some Disney old-timers called in for their reactions.  The production was already pretty far along, with some scenes roughly animated and a few fully animated and colored, including the spectacular opening number, The Circle of Life.

When Allers and Minkoff finished their lively presentation, I joined in the discussion, making a few suggestions that seemed in the spirit of why I was there – to lend some mythic dimension to the story of the young lion king.  Although I feared it was too late to make changes to the beautifully animated Circle of Life number, I made a couple of suggestions that were taken to heart and found their way into the finished film.

Most of my notes involved the character of Rafiki the baboon who serves as a kind of comical Zen master and occasional life coach for young Simba.  At that point he was ill-defined as a mythic Mentor, failing to perform the essential functions of that archetype.  I thought of a couple of touches that would enhance his almost religious aura: anointing the infant Simba’s forehead to mark him as a chosen one, and having a shaft of sunlight shoot out of the parting clouds just as Rafiki holds up the baby to show the adoring animals, creating a sort of stained-glass window effect and giving the ceremony an endorsement from nature.  One of the directors, Rob Minkoff, thought it over and said yes, Rafiki already was carrying some mysterious gourds and maybe he could crack one open to anoint the cub’s forehead with its juice.  The shaft of sunlight idea met with general agreement – in fact there was a kind of spark of excitement in the room — and I spotted some of the animators sketching the scene on their drawing pads.  In the finished film, the shaft of light is timed perfectly to coincide with the climax in the musical composition, and the effect is quite dramatic.

It’s hard to say who is responsible for an idea in a film, especially in animation where hundreds of people are commenting, critiquing and trying out different solutions.  I may have been the first, the fifth, or the twenty-fifth to suggest something, but every opinion has weight, and even if you are chiming in after someone else expressed an idea, you are helping to influence the group’s ultimate sense of what’s right for the story.

I was happiest when the team took one of my notes and ran with it, usually transforming it into something excitingly different from what I could have imagined.  At one point I was asked to do a Hero’s Journey analysis of Hamlet since that was in the back of everyone’s minds in the conflict between Simba and his usurping uncle Scar.  I was also tasked to provide the writers with a list of the best-known lines from Hamlet, and they turned these into clever parodies of Shakespeare, with Hamlet’s “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well,” becoming “Alas, poor wildebeest, I chewed him well.”  The choice of Jeremy Irons as the sardonic voice of Scar went a long way to giving his character a Shakespearian flavor.

Other touches that I thought would add some mythic resonance:  Feeling that Rafiki and Simba dropped out of contact for too long in the second act, I recommended that Rafiki should use his mystical powers to track down Simba and continue his training.  This was effectively translated into the visual language of animation with a scene of Rafiki sadly smearing a cave drawing of Simba because he fears the cub must be dead.  Then, in a later scene after Simba has transitioned into adulthood, Rafiki senses that Simba is still alive and adds an adult lion’s mane to the drawing before setting out to find him.

I also felt that Scar’s self-centered, cruel leadership should result in visible harm to society and the environment.  This was realized in the film by brief transitional shots that showed plants withering and waterholes drying up.  The idea survived into Julie Taymore’s theatrical version of The Lion King, where the effect was achieved by brilliantly simple stagecraft.  At the beginning of the second act, the lights come up on an empty stage, covered with a circular piece of blue silk fabric that represents a watering hole.  Then, it is slowly pulled from the center down into a small hole drilled into the stage floor, so that the waterhole seems to dry up before our eyes.  I got the shivers when I saw it.  The simple bit of stage magic was more powerful than the fanciest, most expensive movie special effects that you could imagine.

When I saw the fully-animated final version of The Lion King, it was clear that the directors, writers and artists had done their best to give the story some of the majesty and timeless quality of myth.  They confidently steered the story in the Hero’s Journey direction at the end of the second act, when Rafiki finds Simba and leads him on a vision quest to meet the spirit of his father.  Rafiki is at his best here as a wise-cracking Yoda-like teacher who issues knocks on the head along with pearls of wisdom.  The scene is another connection to Hamlet, mirroring a scene where young Hamlet confronts the ghost of his father, who urges him to confront the uncle who murdered him.

There was a lot of suspense around the release of The Lion King.  We all liked it but had no idea how it would play for an audience that didn’t already know the story.  Disney had been on a roll with The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin all scoring solid hits.  Some wondered if The Lion King, an original story not based on a well-known fairy tale or children’s book, would fail to top them.  To everyone’s relief, it surpassed them all, becoming the most successful animated film ever, and for a while, the most profitable motion picture in history.  Why?  Mainly because people were enchanted by the talents of the animation team, the gorgeous renderings of the animals, the earthy, Broadway-influenced comedy of Timon and Puumba and the exuberant, African-themed music.  But there was also a secret sauce, the Hero’s Journey patterns that resonated for audiences in every culture around the globe.  The challenge of growing up and claiming your rightful place in the world is a classic Hero’s Journey motif that struck something deep in many people.  The familiar stages of the hero myth were not the only principles guiding The Lion King; some of Walt’s own heart and way of thinking steered the ship along with the team’s good instincts for comedy and a wonderful sense of fun.  But the Hero’s Journey definitely played its part and I can say that this is one case where it was applied consciously to make the work more accessible to a broad audience and give it a sense of magic and the powerful, primal rhythms of life.

To complete the story, people want to know what happened to the plagiarist.  I have forgotten his name; I don’t hold a grudge and in fact I thank him, because without the irritation of having my work stolen and presented at the highest levels of the company, I might never have had the chance to make my modest contribution to The Lion King.  Many people knew about his plagiarism and he might have endured slight damage to his reputation, but I doubt it.  At the time, I offered this prayer I learned from an old screenwriter, a veteran of Warner Bros. glory days: “O Lord, may they get exactly what they deserve as soon as possible.”

My memo lived on, spreading virally all over Hollywood by the primitive means of fax and copier, becoming part of Hollywood lore and eventually becoming the cornerstone of my book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, about to be re-published with a 25th anniversary edition by Michael Wiese Productions.



2 Responses to “How The Lion King Got the Hero’s Journey Treatment: Thanks to Synchronicity and Some Help from a Plagiarist”

  1. Stan Williams Says:

    Am I the first to comment? Great! Thanks, Chris, for the re-telling of this good story with added detail I had not heard before. Today the Hero’s Journey has been accepted as part of the natural law of story telling. It informed my own writing of “The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success” also published by Michael Wiese Productions and for which YOU so kindly wrote the Foreword. Thank you so much for your insights, legendary work, perseverance and friendship. (Stan Williams)

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