Analysing Bryan Singer’s gripping dissection of man’s relationship with evil.
Apt Pupil is one of those delightful movies in which the hunter suddenly becomes the hunted.
Of course, this is Stephen King at his macabre and intimate best, and although the character’s in Bryan Singer’s engrossing, bare bones adaptation are as familiar to us as the next human being, they possess all of the secrets and desires that fundamentally keep us strangers. This is anything but your typical good opposing evil morality play, and in many ways the movie’s central characters are not opponents at all.
The novella was published in a compilation along with The Body (Stand by Me) and Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption, which gives you some idea of the kind of prolific talent King was back then, and his adroit understanding of the human condition. Here, he chooses perhaps the most prominent of all human atrocities as his subject matter, exploring the nature of evil and how it exists within a human vessel. Is true evil an anomaly that belongs to the few, or is it something that is innate in all of us? Can an evil that once existed die, or is it merely a sleeping beast just waiting to be nurtured?
Todd Bowden is a kid who harbours a perverse intrigue. On the surface he is a mild-mannered, grade A student from a successful family who finds himself looking beyond the everyday teachings of a high school whose curriculum will only reveal so much. More than knowledge, what he craves is experience, the kind that most of us are trained to look away from, and in a reclusive old man he finds the key to all of his darkest desires, pursuing them with the kind of ruthlessness that is alien to the majority of comfortable suburbanites.
Todd Bowden – What you’ve suffered with me is nothing compared to what the Israelis would do to you. You forget that. And I’ll admit that’s my fault, but don’t ever forget the file I have on you. I try to do things the nice way but you don’t want it. So fine, we’re going to do it the hard way. You’ll put this on because I want to see you in it. Now, move!
Todd has one shot at penetrating the man’s defences, and makes sure his guns are loaded before biting the bullet. He suspects the man of being a Nazi war criminal brought to his attention in history class, a suspicion confirmed via secretly taken photos and a series of fingerprints dusted off his mailbox. He even has explicit documents stashed away, ready to be mailed to Israel at a moments notice. In an instance of devilish irony that punctuates many of King’s tales, the kid has done his homework.
The man, claiming to be Arthur Denker, naturally denies any knowledge of the infamous Kurt Dussander: a monster responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jewish prisoners during World War II. Denker threatens to call the police, but the kid calls his bluff. The once powerful soldier is a shell of a man living in a bottle, and it doesn’t take much for him to crack.
All the boy wants in return for his silence is knowledge, to be told all of those things they’re afraid to tell him at school. At first Todd is engrossed by what he hears, safe in the knowledge that he is in control of the situation, but when his mother invites Denker over for dinner, he is perturbed by the man’s devilish charm and growing confidence, and when he purchases an exact replica of a Nazi uniform and forces the man to march in it, he awakens a long-dormant evil that he was not prepared for. Soon, the man once known as Dussander is back to his old tricks again, telling lies and manipulating situations, and before long he is feeding stray cats to ovens with a perverse glint in his eye. There was a time when he enjoyed this kind of thing, and before long the wily strategist in him is awoken.
Denker/Dussander is played by Sir Ian McKellen, his transition from harmless old man to malevolent devil nothing short of spellbinding. Denker may have seemed harmless, but he was only waiting for his opportunity, his wiry grin creeping wider as his plan falls into place. When he inevitably graduates to murder, it is Todd’s assistance he demands, putting him in the kind of predicament that can change a person irrevocably.
The movie also stars the late Brad Renfro, yet another in a long line of ‘Brat Pack’ diamonds who would succumb to the pressure and temptations of life in the Hollywood fast lane. Going head-to-head with one of the industry’s finest, he more than held his own with a performance that promised much for a future that was not meant to be. Renfro had all the prerequisites to rise to the very top of the industry, and Apt Pupil is unquestionably the finest hour of a career that was tragically cut short.
Kurt Dussander – It doesn’t matter. Oh, you’re going to be infamous, boy, take my word for it. And do you know what such a scandal can do? It never goes away. Not for you, not for your parents. And besides, lying to judges and reporters isn’t as easy as you think. You’d have to be brilliant. Can you do that? I know I can.
Director Singer largely handles the material from afar, and although he occasionally captures the claustrophobia of Todd’s descent with a stylish panache that sees simple after-gym showers transform into Nazi gas chambers, he mostly lets the material and performances do the talking, handling affairs with a gentle and respectful restraint. Onscreen, McKellen steals the show with a performance of startling authenticity, his bedraggled curmudgeon springing to life in a maelstrom of repressed evil, but the story is ultimately the author’s own, and the director is aware that the power lies in the story.
This is a classic tête-à-tête between two characters separated by generations, but brought together by the darker persuasions of mankind. The human race may have come a long way in regards to civilisation, but the capacity for evil is deep-rooted, and not reserved for the few as most of us would prefer to believe. But it is also a question of nurture, and how far our nature can be tested under influence and circumstance. In Dussander, we see that evil can be reawakened, but given the same environment, can a boy of a seemingly normal disposition become something else entirely?
Many of the best King adaptations have been low-key movies based on simple, short form stories, and this is trademark King, an irregular tale in familiar surroundings with characters that are both instantly recognisable and profoundly dysfunctional. Apt Pupil is drenched in the macabre and alive with irony, while at the same time remaining grounded and relatable, the very ingredients that have made King one of the most prolific and best-loved writers in modern, mainstream fiction.