Apt Pupil

Stephen King’s Different Seasons, his 1982 collection of novellas, has yielded three fine movies: Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption, and now Apt Pupil. (The fourth story, “The Breathing Method,” remains unfilmed — and probably unfilmable.) Of the three, Apt Pupil is easily the riskiest and toughest, both as a story in itself and as a challenge for filmmakers. At least one set of adapters took a whack at it, and were only eleven days away from a wrap before the plug was pulled and the film shelved. Plagued by delays, legal hassles, and the problems of the material itself, this film has had the longest, most difficult pregnancy in recent memory.

Fortunately, Apt Pupil has two skillful sets of hands to deliver it: director Bryan Singer (who made the coolly intricate puzzle The Usual Suspects) and first-time screenwriter Brandon Boyce, a Singer associate who acted in Singer’s 1992 debut Public Access. It also has a master to cut the cord from King’s book and slap it into its own chilling life: Ian McKellen as Kurt Dussander, the Blood Fiend of Patin, a Nazi war criminal hiding in the peaceful, leafy suburbs. Apt Pupil would be well-crafted without McKellen; with him, it’s haunting — a true horror movie.

Dussander, posing as “Arthur Denker,” is visited one day by Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro), a straight-A student with an unnatural interest in the Holocaust. He recognizes Dussander from old photographs, and he strikes a deal with the old man: Todd will keep quiet if Dussander will regale Todd with stories of what really happened in the death camps — all the gory details they leave out in school. At first disgusted, Dussander soon warms to his storyteller role, reliving (in more ways than one) his unspeakable past. And we watch as his influence rubs off on Todd.

Stephen King’s novella is perhaps unique among his work in that it’s genuinely evil. I don’t mean that as a criticism but as a sort of compliment: King went further than he’d ever gone (and has ever gone since), climbing into the heads of his old and young monsters, and he took us with him, at length — an ugly and undeniably compelling experience that makes us question ourselves: If we’re ready to condemn Todd for hanging on Dussander’s every word, what does that make us for reading it? The novella is bizarre and mechanistic and compulsively readable — maybe the closest King has come to his version of art.

Unfortunately, toward the end of his story, King took a sharp left turn into pulp. Singer and Boyce have wisely altered the ending, making it much more subtle, and have also muted some of the novella’s gorier bits. What remains is still challenging. We see that Dussander is a monster and that Todd is becoming one, yet the basic conventions of narrative force us into complicity with them — force us to hope they don’t get caught. When the two put one over on Todd’s dweeby guidance counselor (David Schwimmer, whose milquetoast persona works for the first time in a movie), we’re meant to enjoy their deception — and we do.

Brad Renfro is decent as Todd, though he differs sharply from King’s Todd (who started out as a cheerful Boy Scout type). We don’t perceive much of a change in his personality — he’s unsmiling and withdrawn right from the start. Somebody like the amiable, funny Seth Green might have truly frightened us by changing from a nice kid into a beast. Still, Renfro holds his own up there with Ian McKellen, who gives one of the year’s great performances. McKellen plays Dussander as a withered husk who comes to life when reminded of the butcher he once was. He makes Dussander human, and therefore all the more monstrous. Apt Pupil can’t go as far or as deep as King did; fiction writers have pages and pages to depict their characters’ inner workings, but a movie, at a certain point, has to stop and hope it has an actor strong enough to fill in the blanks. This movie does.

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