The Lion King's Jon Favreau on How to Adapt Beloved Source Material

Jon Favreau knows his new, photorealistic take on Disney’s classic animated 1994 film The Lion King isn’t going to compete with the memories burned into the brains of a generation who grew up watching it repeatedly, or with the vivid impressions left by the award-winning Broadway musical that it spawned. The trick, he insists, is to lean into those cherished memories and interpret them in compelling – but not radical – new ways.

“That’s something I learned on Jungle Book, and even to some extent on Iron Man,” Favreau explained, citing his previous, phenomenally successful takes on beloved and well-established source material. “Before we study the old movie, let’s write down everything we know and everything we remember. And what are the things that we have to do? And it’s a much longer list on Lion King because everybody watched it in the back of their minivans on DVD over and over again, right? The Millennials grew up with it, and even I’ve seen it lots, and I was an adult when it came out.”

Although Favreau, speaking on the set of the new adaptation, is filtering his version of the tale through a unique filmmaking process that takes traditional on-set shooting techniques and applies them to a virtual digital world, where happy accidents of lighting and camera moves are captured and acting performances are melded with painstakingly crafted animal characters to allow for real moments of creative inspiration. But all of that needs to serve the audience’s deeply felt expectations while experiencing a tale embedded deep in their psyches.

“This feels like myth,” he said. “Part of it is creating a tone that feels consistent for this medium, in which you get away with other goofier humor, and more violent stuff, too: cartoon kind of sands those edges down. With live-action you have to be more decisive about things like humor and intensity and violence because it will get very extreme and not feel like part of the same film.”

lion king poster Simba
(Photo: Walt Disney Studios)

“Part of it’s just understanding the way memory works, and what expectations are,” he added, “and then being able to do things like, ‘I think we can plus the humor here -- I don’t think this joke holds up as well,’ ‘I think we could change the characterization of this character to feel more consistent with the rest of the film, or more current and doesn’t feel like it’s something from a different era.’”

“A lot of it is being sensitive about the tone of it and ride of it, and ultimately you walk out and you say, ‘Yeah, I just saw Lion King – yeah, that’s what I remember about the old one,’” he continued. “And if you’re thinking of introducing your kid to Lion King for the first time, that they’re gonna be seeing Lion King if you bring them here, and then they’ll want to go home and watch the cartoon and they’ll want to go see the play.”

The remarkable new visual approach also provokes a “lean-in” factor that Favreau believes works greatly in the new film’s favor.

“It causes you to be present and mindful and pay attention, because you’re trying to figure out what you’re looking at,” he explained. “And that’s a great disposition to be in as an audience member. I remember when I saw Gravity, I didn’t know what I was gonna expect, I just heard it was cool – I didn’t know how they did half the tricks. And I was completely drawn in by it, and it was the experience I remember going to the movies before when I was little. It just washes over you.”

“In this more than any other filmmaking, I’m sitting at the top of this huge collection of creative partners,” Favreau noted. “And it’s humbling because you’re helping to steer it and guide it and manage it, but really it’s the flashes of inspiration and these wonderful grace notes that give it the quality that I get to stand here and present. Really I’m part of a very big collection of a synergistic team, and that in and of itself, especially as I get older, makes me very proud, that I could be part of that and help that thing reach its potential.”

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“I want to highlight what’s in there from the original, and it’s the whole Circle of Life, and bad things happen, good things happen,” he said. “Not every scene in the movie is fun to watch – there’s sadness, there’s tragedy in it – but ultimately what I like about it is that somehow after that whole experience you walk away feeling inspired and hopeful. Which is how I like my stories.”

“It’s very hard to compete with something that’s so fond in people’s memories,” Favreau admitted. “But I’d say we were staying very, very close to what you think it’s gonna be.”