When Stephen King is at his worst, which is usually when he attempts to be literary, he loses all contact with his characters' humanity and takes an almost pornographic delight in the seamier aspects of their psychoses. "Look how fucked up I can make these people," he seems to say. And like a toddler being toilet trained, he receives extravagant and exaggerated critical praise for his efforts, despite the dubious product he's created.
In "Apt Pupil," the third of King's Different Seasons novellas to be made into a movie ("The Body" became Stand by Me, while "Rita Hayworth and Shaw-shank Redemption" became The Shawshank Redemption), the author tries to connect the reader to his characters by making their actions and dialogue commonplace and cliched. They're just like everyone else. But it's the particular and the specific that make characters breathe: King's never do.
Todd Bowden, the novella's title character, is repeatedly described as "American": He has "American teeth" and "blond American hair" and strong "American hands." This story of "the total All-American kid" whose unnatural fascination with Holocaust atrocities leads him to an involvement with a fugitive Nazi war criminal has themes aplenty, but the main one is that evil arises from ordinary people. And this is overthrown.
King's characters' "human" qualities are generic and dull -- they speak and act in '50s sitcom cliches. Only their madness achieves the specific, the unique, and the personal. Consequently, the reader doesn't recognize Todd and the criminal Dussander as human. They're psychos, easily dismissed, and their evil is supernatural, extrahuman. To connect them with real, human abominations like the Holocaust is its own kind of atrocity.
Still, you can see what attracted talented young director Bryan Singer to this material. His The Usual Suspects, one of the best movies of 1995, was a masterful, sinuous revelation of a man, Keyser Soze (Kevin Spacey), who exercises brilliant, preternatural control over his public self to hide his private deviltry. King's "Apt Pupil" is the story of two people whose private evils corrupt their public selves.
Director Singer and screenwriter Brandon Boyce (who acted in Singer's debut feature film, Public Access) aim to correct the flaws in King's story by making it less sensational, more subtle and ambiguous. In their Apt Pupil, Todd (Brad Renfro) isn't the mass murderer of the novella; instead, he's drawn into a single murder. The Nazi war-criminal-in-hiding Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen) is living safely and comfortably in America until Todd sees him on a bus, recognizes him, and insinuates himself into Dussander's life. Too late, Todd realizes that he can't become acquainted with Dussander's depravity without being tainted by it.
While King's Todd is a psychotic whose violent impulses overwhelm and destroy him, Singer and Boyce's Todd is a mixed-up kid who gets involved in something he learns he can't control. But he does learn how to cover it up and how to manipulate those who would expose him. Presumably, he's a Keyser Soze in the making.
Singer and Boyce make several serious missteps that render their version of the story no more successful than King's. Their movie makes it possible to justify Todd's actions: He makes a mistake getting entangled with Dussander; his involvement in the murder is as a victim of Dussander's manipulations and can be read as self-defense; and he does the only thing he can do, which is cover it up and end the relationship. What's a kid with your average unhealthy fascination with Nazi atrocities to do?
Because this Todd isn't a psycho, we never learn why he's so intrigued by the Nazis. And by toning down Todd's crimes, Singer and Boyce inadvertently downplay the horror of the Holocaust. Renfro plays Todd with a sullen, depressed expression that rarely changes, so, unbelievably, it's McKellen's Dussander who gets the funny lines and lively moments -- such as they are.
Dussander comes across as a harmless, pathetic old guy who just happened to kill thousands of Jews a long time ago. So maybe (or maybe not -- Singer plays coy here) he stuffs an occasional stray cat in his oven and roasts it. Leave the poor guy alone already! When Dussander wears the SS costume Todd gives him, he looks rather comical, failing utterly to invoke the terrors of the Third Reich that King (and Singer) intend the moment to represent. The atrocities he recounts, which are supposed to mesmerize Todd, are blurred together in montage: One story fades away and another begins and all of them lack any palpable impact. In fact, they're boring enough that they should have cured the kid of his obsession. And the power struggles between the boy and the old man become claustrophobic and inconsequential: "I gotcha now." "Oh, no you don't." Good Lord.
Singer and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel are master technicians. The film looks great, and the effortlessly seductive camerawork occasionally recalls De Palma. John Ottman's music (he also served as editor) is used to less effect than in The Usual Suspects, but then, everything here is used to less effect than in The Usual Suspects. (The one moment that does come close to actual horror -- when a former prisoner of Dussander's sights him -- does so mainly because of Ottman's music.) Doubtless, the technical skill evinced in the film and its charged subject matter will lead some to consider it important. But it isn't.
"Was it a matter of human nature?" Todd's teacher asks rhetorically, teaching the kids about the Holocaust. Bryan Singer, both like and unlike Stephen King, doesn't have the answer to that question.