The King of Summer: Apt Pupil (1998)
When it was announced we were doing this King retrospective for the summer, I wasn’t sure I wanted to participate. After all, I’m not the biggest fan of his work. You’d think for someone who has such a passion for horror, I’d be all over his stuff but I really just don’t care for it that much. For a little background, I’ve read all of his early work up through Pet Sematary plus all the Dark Tower books. As my colleagues were claiming different King film adaptations, I wondered what the hell could I write about? I wanted to pick something more obscure (it is me, you know), a movie I don’t see talked about very much on social media and then it hit me; Apt Pupil.
I’d read the collection of novellas Different Seasons back in high school and I remember quite enjoying it. Of the four shorts in the book, three have been adapted for the screen, The Body (Stand by Me), Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (The Shawshank Redemption), and Apt Pupil. Both Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption are excellent films, two of the better results of King’s work being translated into films. Apt Pupil doesn’t quite stand up to its other bookmates but there is a lot to like in a movie that revolves around such an important topic. I acknowledge there was some controversy with the filming of the movie but am choosing, for this piece, to only discuss the movie itself.
Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) is a 16-year-old high school senior with everything going for him. He’s smart, likeable, good looking, a star athlete, and is on his way to graduating as valedictorian. Todd also has a bit of a dark side. He has a fascination with World War II Germany, especially the Holocaust. After exhaustive research, he discovers that his neighbor, Arthur Denker (Ian McKellen), is actually a war criminal, SS officer Kurt Dussander. Todd decides to confront Dussander about his past and blackmail the old man. He threatens him with exposure to the Israeli authorities unless Dussander tells Todd all about what it was like to work in the concentration camps. Todd is interested in stories. He wants all the details Dussander can provide. At first, Dussander refuses to participate but he realizes his exposure would lead to his death so he decides to give Todd what he wants.
Over the course of a school year in 1984, the two spend hours together. Todd has become consumed with the evil that Dussander has been describing to him in detail. Todd grades slip to the point where he might flunk his senior year. Todd’s parents (Bruce Davison and Ann Dowd) are totally oblivious to their son’s spiral. They just think he’s going over to the elderly Denker’s house to read to him. Todd has become so obsessive with the atrocities that he begins to dream about them. He gets off on it. On a date with a girl, Todd is unable to get an erection as she tries to perform fellatio on him. Dussander, who had previous tried to forget all the evil he inflicted on thousands of people in the death camps, has now had to relive it all for Todd. This has caused his penchant for torture to reappear and he begins to act on his desires. More and more, as Dussander and Todd each descend into their own evils, they become more tied to each other. Both now are reliant on the other not to expose their secrets. Either one could destroy the other and, in the process, destroy themselves.
There are a lot of differences between the book and the film. I won’t go into all of them here but one of the main changes is Todd’s violent nature. In the book, Todd acts out on his murderous desires, where in the movie, he only participates in 'cleaning up' something Dussander has done. In the book, Todd’s dreams are much more extensive and horrific. He dreams of rape, torture, and murder. It’s easy to see why that was changed for the movie. The movie tries to make clear that Todd enjoys all the stories he’s hearing about torture but in the book, he literally does 'get off on it'. Also, there is no question there is a lot of homoeroticism in the movie, more than there is in the book. Although nothing physical happens between the two men, as Dussander tells Todd at one point, “My boy, we are fucking each other.”
Both Renfro and McKellen are outstanding in the movie. It makes me a little sad watching Renfro work because he had such potential. His untimely death was our loss because I think he could’ve become one the better actors of his generation. McKellen is, well, McKellen. He work as Denker/Dussander is subtle yet scary. When the two are on screen together, they remind me of a kind of George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Director Bryan Singer and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel do a good job trying to recreate that 1984 Southern California feel. The film really does look good. On the outside, everything is sunny and bright but inside, it’s dark and dank as fuck. There are elements of the movie that are tough to watch and hear; for some, it might border on exploitative. It’s weird to say that I enjoyed the film because of the subject matter but I certainly appreciate the work put on the screen. If nothing else, the movie should be watched to see Renfro and McKellen. They are the glue that holds the movie together.