Apt Pupil (1998)


“You Have No Idea What I Can Do”

Main Cast: Brad Renfro, Ian McKellen

Director: Bryan Singer

Stephen King has serious daddy issues.  I know I’ve said that before, and I know I’m gonna have to say it again if I continue to review his work, because he keeps writing about it.

For the most part, this comes into play when the hero of the book meets an older man along the story’s journey and the older man either provides companionship or information or help as the hero battles the villain.  All the way back to his second published novel, ‘SALEM’S LOT when Ben Mears met Matt Burke, King has been repeating himself ad nauseum.

Stu Redman met Judge Farris in THE STAND.  Louis Creed met Jud Crandall in PET SEMATARY.  In CELL, Clay Riddell met Tom McCourt.  In DOCTOR SLEEP, Dan Torrance had Bill Freeman.  In HEARTS IN ATLANTIS, Bobby Garfield had Ted Brautigan.  Even as recently as 2020’s IF IT BLEEDS, Craig had Mr. Harrigan.  But this team-up doesn’t always have a positive outcome, as he revealed in the 1982 collection DIFFERENT SEASONS with the story Apt Pupil.

Adapted by Brandon Boyce and directed by Bryan Singer (of THE USUAL SUSPECTS and X-MEN fame) in 1998, the elevator pitch for APT PUPIL is simple enough: High school student Todd Bowden suspects a man in his neighborhood of being a Nazi war criminal.  Instead of turning the man in, he blackmails him into regaling Todd with stories of the war.  As the two become closer during the course of the year, each begins to sink further down their own personal spiral.

APT PUPIL is a movie I’ve been putting off reviewing for … well, almost two years now, I think, for various reasons.  One, it’s almost 2 hours and who’s got 2 hours anymore to devote to a movie they’d already seen once shortly after it was released and didn’t remember it being all that.  Two, is there really ever a good time to watch a movie where someone becomes fascinated by Nazis?  When has that EVER turned out well? 

But now I have to say, that hesitation was unnecessary.  This was a good movie.  The subject matter is still not necessarily one you want your impressionable kids watching with you, but the filmmaking was top notch across the board.

Brad Renfro (THE CLIENT, SLEEPERS) was 15 playing Todd Bowden and it’s a true loss to the art when a kid with that much talent would be gone ten years later.  Then again, his career post-APT PUPIL is also a loss.  But damn this kid had it.

And then there’s Ian McKellen (X-MEN, THE LORD OF THE RINGS) as Dussander/Denker, the ex-Nazi.  This dude could do more with a simple curl of his lips than many actors can do with their whole face and a page full of dialogue.  What a friggin’ talent.

It’s been a while since I’ve read the King novella, so I don’t know how much of the dialogue was adapted and how much was original, but there were some exchanges here that left me thinking, “Now THAT is how you write dialogue!”

If I had to find some negatives here, I’m disappointed that they wimped out over the ending, which is WAY different from the original novella.  If you don’t want to read King’s story, you can find the original ending in the Anthrax song “Skeletons in the Closet”, which is also based on this story.

Knowing how the story ends—but not remembering how APT PUPIL the movie ended—I knew we were almost done, and I could see things heading in that original direction, but then the movie just stops.  Granted, it stops on a high note, another excellent performance by Renfro, but … that’s not the ending I know, it’s not the ending I was expecting.  I can see how the original ending may have caused a bit of an uproar at the time, but, well, that’s how the story ended.  And it was AN ending, as opposed to this sudden STOP we got here.

I understand this is the more sensitive ending, the one that sort of leaves Todd “in the clear” as far as getting away Scot-Free with a series of events HE set in motion, and it leaves us with a very dark and foreboding image of our main character. I almost said “our hero”, but oddly enough, there are NO heroes in this story; it’s a story of two antagonists set against each other who must, at times, come together for their own benefit.  But there’s not a protagonist to be found anywhere here.  There’s Todd, there’s Denker, and there’s a handful of side characters—Bruce Davison and Ann Dowd as Todd’s parents, Joe Morton as an FBI Agent, Joshua Jackson as Todd’s friend Joey, Heather McComb as Todd’s girlfriend, David Schwimmer as Todd’s guidance counselor.  Yes, it’s a dark ending.  But the ending of the novella was much darker, and I think would have left the audience with a more unforgettable image.

When you compare the two, the original ending to the movie ending, it’s no wonder $3.5 million in viewers walked out of the theater and forgot they’d seen this movie.

APT PUPIL is a good movie, deserving of more attention than it got, but I also understand WHY a movie like this isn’t being touted more when people mention must-see King adaptations.  Renfro and McKellen are outstanding, the writing is excellent, but the subject matter is one that will drive audiences away in droves, especially in today’s political climate.  If you watch this one, go in on guard, but be prepared to see some really subtle and masterful performances.

Recommended, with warnings.

King on Film

Carrie (1976)

‘Salem’s Lot (1979)

The Shining (1980)

Creepshow (1982)

The Boogeyman (1982)

Cujo (1983)

Disciples of the Crow (1983)

The Woman in the Room (1983)

The Dead Zone (1983)

Christine (1983)

Children of the Corn (1984)

Firestarter (1984)

Word Processor of the Gods (1984)

Cat’s Eye (1985)

Silver Bullet (1985)

Srazhenie (1986)

Gramma (1986)

Maximum Overdrive (1986)

Stand By Me (1986)

The Lawnmower Man (1987)

Creepshow 2 (1987)

A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987)

The Running Man (1987)

Sorry, Right Number (1987)

The Last Rung on the Ladder (1987)

Pet Sematary (1989)

Cain Rose Up (1989)

The Cat From Hell (1990)

The Graveyard Shift (1990)

IT (1990 Mini-Series)

Misery (1990)

The Moving Finger (1991)

Sometimes They Come Back (1991)

Golden Years (1991)

The Lawnmower Man (1992)

Sleepwalkers (1992)

Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (1992)

The Dark Half (1993)

The Tommyknockers (1993)

Needful Things (1993)

The Stand (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995)

The Mangler (1995)

Dolores Claiborne (1995)

The Langoliers (1995)

Sometimes They Comes Back … Again (1996)

Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering (1996)

Thinner (1996)

The Shining (1997)

Ghosts (1997)

Chattery Teeth (1997)

The Revelations of ‘Becka Paulson (1997)

Trucks (1997)

The Night Flier (1997)

Chinga (1997)

Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (1998)

Gerald’s Game (2017)

1922 (2017)

The Stand (2021)

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