The film “Apt Pupil” takes place in 1984, in southern California. Students sitting in their sociology class are informed by their teacher (Mickey Cottrell), that their week long study of the Holocaust has finished. If the students are interested, however, in finding out more, the teacher suggests they check out the local library, which he states, has a wealth of resource material on the subject. Todd Bowden, played by Brad Renfro (Sleepers) is not only interested in learning more about the Nazis and their crimes, he seemingly becomes obsessed. A montage of Todd reading through numerous source materials on the subject is shown to the viewer. Monica, Todd’s mother, a role acted by Emmy winner Ann Dowd (The Handmaid’s Tale), and his father Richard, played by Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner Bruce Davison (Short Cuts), are unaware of the stash of Nazi reading material and pictures, Todd has hidden in his bedroom, unlike most teenage boys at the time, who would have hidden Playboy magazines.
Todd’s infatuation is taken to the next level, when he rides the bus one evening, and spots an older man, who looks familiar to him. As it turns out, the man, is a wanted Nazi war criminal, who is leading a quiet life, not far from where Todd lives. Unlike others in his age group, whose emotions might have gotten the best of them, causing them to pounce immediately, Todd takes a more methodical approach. Off camera, but made known to the viewer, Todd dusts the suspected Nazi’s mailbox for fingerprints. His investigation comes up with more matches than is required by the F.B.I. to make an arrest. Armed with that, plus the recent pictures he’s taken of the former Nazi while spying on him, Todd confronts the man with a ruse about having his newspaper.
Nazi, SS Officer, Kurt Dussander is completely embodied by two time Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner Ian McKellan (Rasputin). During the film, McKellan conveys more with several facial expressions, than some actors do with an entire monologue. At first Dussander acts in a cantankerous manner, insisting that he is not who Todd thinks he is, and if he doesn’t leave, he will call the police. Todd calls Dussander’s bluff. He knows the police are the last people Dussander wants to come to his house. The same house, where there is a sign posted alongside the front door, warning away solicitors and the like. Dussander knows that he is at a disadvantage, so he comes out and asks Todd what he wants. Todd is not interested in money, nor material goods. The currency that Todd seeks is information. He wants Dussander to tell him everything that took place in the Patin concentration camp, that Dussander ran during the war. Specifically, Todd informs Dussander, he wants to know the things they won’t tell him in school. Having no choice Dussander reluctantly agrees.
Todd’s infatuation takes its toll on him, not just mentally, it also adversely effects his grades in school. He goes from being an athlete and an honor student, who was on pace to be the class Valedictorian, to winding up with C’s and D’s on his current report card. This is all thanks to the amount of time he devotes to Dussander. Todd’s declining grades prompts his guidance counselor, Mr. French, played by three time Emmy nominee David Schwimmer (Friends), to want to bring in Todd’s parents for a meeting. The meeting can’t take place, because that would end the ruse Todd’s set up for them regarding helping Dussander, at his home, because of Dussander’s poor eyesight. Compounding Todd’s problems is that Dussander starts to yearn for the way things were in the past, when he was in total control of whether people lived or died. Todd made the conscious choice to sit and spend time with a man who, during the war, embraced the evil that he was committing, and who doesn’t have any regrets over what took place. Furthermore, Dussander is someone, who had been clever enough to have avoided detection by American and Israeli law enforcement for decades, and who due to age and experience, is superior to Todd in his cunning. Now that Todd has allowed the evil in Dussander to be rekindled, can he stop it? Will Todd’s infatuation with an unparalleled, dark period of history be his own undoing?
“Apt Pupil” was directed by four time Emmy nominee Bryan Singer (House M.D.). The screenplay was written by Brandon Boyce (Under the Banner of Heaven). Boyce adapted the story from Stephen King’s “Different Seasons.” The King work is a collection of four novellas that was published by Viking Press on August 27, 1982. The film premiered on September 9, 1998 at the Venice Film Festival in Italy. Parts crime, drama, and thriller, the movie has a runtime of 111 minutes.
Trivia buffs take note: Two other stories from Stephen King’s “Different Seasons” have become movies. The story “The Body” was filmed by two time Emmy winner Rob Reiner (All in the Family), and released as “Stand by Me,” in 1986. In addition, the story “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” became “The Shawshank Redemption” directed by three time Oscar nominee Frank Darabont, and was released in 1994. Golden Globe winner James Mason (A Star Is Born) agreed to play the Kurt Dussander character in 1984, but passed away before filming could begin. Subsequently the part was offered to BAFTA winner Richard Burton (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), but he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, before filming commenced. A 1987 version of the film was started, which featured Golden Globe winner Ricky Schroder (The Champ), as Todd Bowden, and three time BAFTA nominee Nicol Williamson (Inadmissible Evidence) as the Dussander character. Unfortunately, the production only lasted six weeks, before going over budget, and the studio decided to pull funding. Stephen King apparently saw a rough cut of most of the film, and thought it was very good. Two time Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins (The Father) was first offered the part of Dussander.
When “Apt Pupil” was released to theaters, it didn’t do well at the box office. Critical reviews of the film were also mixed. As a Stephen King fan, I’ve seen most of the adaptations of his work, that have been turned into films, and been produced for television. I’ve seen the film a few times, and while it is not the absolute best production based on King’s writing, – that distinction for me will probably always be the original “Carrie,” – I consider it one of the best, that has been brought to the screen. It’s a shame that it hasn’t found a larger audience, because the psychological gamesmanship that takes place between Renfro and McKellan is excellent. As of the writing of this post the film is available to be streamed on Amazon. I recommend it for King fans who have never seen the film, as well as, fans of the cast, especially McKellan, and those who like psychologically oriented thrillers.