Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Apt Pupil: The Darkness Within

Nothing I have ever seen has ever affected or scared me as much as when I saw my first Holocaust pictures.  I was probably in the eighth or ninth grade and was sitting in a library doing research for a WWII term paper.  I wonder if those books are even still in libraries today, because they are such a powerful reminder that the world sucks sometimes. You don't need to see The Exorcist to get your fix of pure evil, it exists in our history. Hell, it still exists today.  But without a doubt, the Holocaust has to be the greatest tragedy in all of mankind.

I was both enthralled and aghast at the atrocities that were inflicted by the Nazis during their "Final Solution". One cannot look away, when shown pictures of such heinous crimes. Men, women, and children, murdered simply because they were a certain religion or because they looked and lived differently than the almighty Hitler did. 
But like I said, it is so interesting - so compelling - that I had to learn more.

Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) wanted to learn more too.  But I suspect his desire for knowledge was a slight bit more demented than my own.  While I was intrigued because I simply cannot believe it was allowed to happen, Todd was a little more interested in the logistics of it all.  The hows, not the whys. 

Apt Pupil (1998) is a film based on a Stephen King novella of the same name, from his book Different Seasons (which also produced The Body {basis for the film Stand By Me} and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, and I'm pretty sure you can figure out the film it inspired).  The plot of Apt Pupil is tampered with a bit in the film version, cutting out a greater portion of the violence in favor of a more psychological feel to the film. But it is still a powerful piece of film making, one of the best King adaptations that is also probably one of the most forgotten.

Todd's class at school is studying the Holocaust, prompting him to seek further information at the library.  He becomes genuinely obsessed with Hilter and his systematic disposal of the Jewish population in WWII.  When he discovers that his neighbor, Arthur Denker, is really a Nazi war criminal evading justice, he takes it upon himself to meet the man and threaten him.  He explains that he knows just who he is, and that he will turn him over to the authorities in a snap if the older gentleman doesn't agree to his wishes. 

Unfortunately, Todd's wishes lean a bit more towards the unbalanced side of his psyche.  He is desperate to know just what vile and despicable things Denker has done.  He persuades Denker (who is really Kurt Dussander, Nazi Obersturmbannführer - a rank just below Hitler himself) to tell him ghastly tales of what it was like to exterminate hundreds - no, thousands - of human beings, be it by shooting them in the head, starving them to death, or in the gas chambers. At first, Denker is reluctant to describe his dreadful and reprehensible crimes, but after a bit of prompting (and blackmail), he becomes as engrossing a storyteller as Todd is enthusiast. Perhaps Denker is starting to enjoy enlightening his "pupil".

Todd begins to have bad dreams - including day-time visions - seeing emaciated Jews in the showers with him at school and the likes.  Denker doesn't hold anything back, describing in great detail what it was like at the camps, and in an especially tense moment he recalls when the gas chamber didn't work - and how the victims had seizures and stumbled around until they eventually died when the Nazi officers had to shoot them in the head. It's a disturbing piece of storytelling on film, made all the more real when you consider things like that actually happened.  How could we have let things go this far? How could it have went down in the first place? It boggles the mind.

Going one step too far, Todd buys Denker an SS uniform for Christmas, and demands he put it on.  In probably the most chilling moment of the film - one that had me on the edge of my seat - Denker comes down the steps and into the kitchen in full dress uniform, and casts a terrifying visage.  When Todd makes him put on his cap and then start to march, he is in for more than her bargained for when Denker once again becomes Dussander, caught up in a moment in time.  He begins to march faster and faster, and even when Todd tells him to stop, Denker continues until ending abruptlym raising his right arm in a heil Hitler salute.
Disturbing, to say the least.

Events escalate from there, with Denker reverting back to his Nazi mindset, making sure no one from the neighborhood cats to the bum stealing liquor bottles out of his trash is safe.  Todd, having made a mess of his academic career by spending so much time hearing Denker's tales of horror, sees his grades slip low enough that he receives deficiency notices from his teachers and is called in to the guidance office.  But who should he see talking to Mr. French (David Schwimmer)?  His "grandfather", Victor Bowden, who also happens to be the same former SS officer hiding out in the palm trees of So Cal and making an indelible impression on a teenage boy.

The ruse comes to a head when Denker reveals to Todd that he has a letter in a safety deposit box that details all of Todd's knowledge of Denker's Nazi involvement and crimes.  He states he had to do it to make sure Todd wouldn't turn him in to the authorities.  Todd has maintained all along that he had the same kind of letter in his possession as well as fingerprints and other telling methods that would send Denker to prison for the rest of his life.  So because the two have each other cornered, they resign themselves to keeping quiet.
But as is usually the case, lies eventually unravel and come back to bite you in the ass. And that is exactly what happens.

Many Stephen King adaptions are crap, that's just common knowledge.  But for every Maximum Overdrive, there is a Misery; for every Dreamcatcher, a Shawshank Redemption.  His work has been hit or miss, and though Apt Pupil may be a less popular and less recognized film, I believe that on the strength of the acting of the two main characters, it is a worthy addition to the list of decent King adaptations. If anything, it is a stark reminder of the horrors of years gone by: one of the darkest and most shameful times in history.


Doug Brunell said...

This is a great film, and a great novella. Of all King's work (and he has been a huge inspiration on my writing career), this is the most realistic of the fiction. The events that transpired in the story happened the way I would envision them to happen. Good call on writing about this. It is a forgotten film.

Budd said...

excellent movie that most people do not realize is a Stephen King adaption.

Christine Hadden said...

Glad to know there are others who feel as I do...this film deserves to be seen.

Kaijinu said...

I always wanted to see this movie; I've read the Stephen King's short and when I found out there's a movie version of it, I had to see it. Still no luck today, but glad to see it reviewed. Now I want to see it more...

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Will Errickson said...

King really tightens the screws in 'Apt Pupil,' always one of my faves. Love how fatalistic it is, how the whole situation devolves perfectly into tragedy and madness, like clockwork. I thought the movie, which effectively changed the ending, was pretty good, but the novella is just awesome. One day I'll get around to reviewing all of DIFFERENT SEASONS!

Not only is there a movie, but back in the '80s Anthrax had a song about the story:

Christine Hadden said...

Will: Agreed, Apt Pupil is just a perfect tragedy. Different Seasons is truly some of King's best work, and the films made from it are some of the best adaptations as well.
The two leads in 'Pupil' just do a fantastic job, just how i envisioned when reading the novella.
And wow! Anthrax. I had no idea! :)

Will Errickson said...

My ideal Todd would've been Ricky Schroder, who, I was pleased to learn, had been the choice for casting when the story was originally going to be adapted in the mid '80s.

Christine Hadden said...

Oh wow! Yes! Ricky Schroder would have been a great choice. He would have lent a whole new feeling to the film, because everyone kind of saw him like a little puppy...and then he could have just fallen under the Nazi's spell, so to speak.

Anonymous said...

I read the book and saw the movie, and I found that the ending of the movie was far better than the book. Dussander was a master liar and manipulator. The way Todd took on those traits to brazenly threaten the wimpish Ed French with a fake accusation of attempted pedophilia to force him to drop everything was spot on. It also left the viewer with contemplating the horror of knowing that the evil that was Dussander would live on in someone as loved and talented as Todd Bowden. From everything presented, Todd Bowden was - at his core - a malignant narcissist. The book version of him haphazardly killing French and then biking down to the freeway to shoot random people was ridiculous to the point where I wondered if someone had sauntered up to Stephen Kings' typewriter and finished the book for him while he was stuck in the bathroom. Bowdens' self love and sense of superiority would never have been served via a random act of suicide-by-cop lunacy.

Christine Hadden said...

Anon: I've always thought this was a very underrated film. As a youth (and even to this day) I had an interest in WWII and especially the Holocaust, so this movie scared the shit out of me. And I completely agree with you that the film ending is so perfect - and the book ending leaves a lot to be desired....

jimj7 said...

I've read the story and seen the movie several times each, and I always think there's an angle to it most people miss. The point isn't that Dussander is evil and manipulates Todd - 'all-american' Todd is, at his center, rotten, and wants to be like Dussander. That is the point of the ending King gave the story - in the end, Todd goes to the hill, and takes on the world - with 'the ecstatic smile of tow-headed boys going off to war in coal-scuttle helmets.' I have always seen it as an analogy for the US after WW2 - we became oddly like the defeated afterward in many ways. We even have the helmets now.