The debatable plot changes aside, you could still enjoy Apt Pupil for its splendid acting and disturbing insights.
Apt Pupil Synopsis
Precocious high school senior Todd Bowden correctly determines the true identity of Arthur Denker i.e. Kurt Dussander, an ageing Nazi concentration camp commander in hiding. He then blackmails Dussander into sharing gruesome tales of Nazi genocide, a subject he is fascinated with. Initially revolted, Dussander soon forms an unnatural affinity with the teen, to the extent he once again contemplates murder. The duo thus set in motion a destructive cycle. Young and old feeding and feeding off each other’s depravity.
For various reasons, I never got down to watching Apt Pupil. Till now, that is. Foremost among the many reasons (excuses) was that having read the novella and the movie synopsis, I wasn’t sure I would find the differences agreeable. To me, it feels the case that the movie would not do justice to what is one of Stephen King’s most gripping non-supernatural stories.
Now that I’ve finally watched it, I’m happy to say my worries were unfounded. I do so because while the changes do change the tone of the story significantly, the end product isn’t necessarily exasperating. Protagonist Todd Bowden here is far less unnerving than his written counterpart, which was possibly an effort to preserve the public image of the late Brad Renfro. (He was THE teen heartthrob back then) Interestingly, this doesn’t displeases and even shines a fresh perspective on the character. Unlike the written version which is downright repulsive, the screen Bowden is fascinating, even bewitching to watch. Perhaps this was director Bryan Singer’s sly parallel for Bowden’s own fascination with an ageing ex-Nazi mass murderer? Or was he mocking the way we flock to watch movies about monsters we would flee from in real life?
And then there’s the immaculate Sir Ian McKellen. Who shows that in between Magneto and Gandalf, he can be so many other things too.
Here, I am also compelled to comment on one of the criticism about Apt Pupil back then. That of the movie lacking a social message. With all due respect, I think such statements were unfair. Be it the novella or the movie, Nazism was but a frame. The heart of the story, instead, was the destructive symbiosis between Bowden and Dussander. By focusing on that, I feel the movie comes closer to examining the roots of evil, through the questions of “why do people do it” and “why do people continue doing it.” While such academic questioning might feel lackadaisical to those in favourite of more visceral presentations, I thought it laid bare the reality of how evil is often inexplicable. This message is undeniably distressing, but in a grim way, it reinforces the dark message of Apt Pupil in the most emphatic way.
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