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 deduces 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 on 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 always felt the case that this 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 significantly alter the tone of the story, the end product isn’t necessarily disappointing.
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 to an extent, 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.
Hereby, 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 this statement was 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 felt the movie then does a reasonable job at 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 favour of more visceral presentations, I thought it laid bare the reality of how evil is often inexplicable. This message is distressing, but in a grim way, it reinforces the dark lesson of Apt Pupil in a most emphatic way.
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