Another novella turned into a feature length film, Apt Pupil was published along with three other stories in a collection called Different Seasons in 1982, two of which also were adapted for the big screen: Rita Hayworth & The Shawshank Redemption became the iconic and infamous The Shawshank Redemption and The Body would later be known as Stand By Me. Both are widely considered as ‘essential’, whereas Apt Pupil is not, but that doesn’t make it any less watchable.
When teenager Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) discovers that a neighbour named Kurt Dussander (Sir Ian McKellen) is a Nazi war criminal, Bowden confronts Dussander with a deal: either tell him stories about his the concentration camps or he will go to the authorities. Dussander agrees, and Todd visits him frequently. To begin with, the deal is upheld on both sides, but when he realises just how much power he has over Dussander, his demands take a disturbing turn, which begin a series of events that awaken past feelings in Kurt, who, in effect, turns the tables on Todd and his games. What follows is a dangerous game of cat and mouse where one wrong move could simultaneously destroy both of their lives.
The subject matter is a touchy one, and there are many occasions where it could be argued that Singer paints Dussander as the victim rather than the criminal, but he handles the film brilliantly, never crossing the line of making the audience wholly sympathetic with the former Nazi’s dilemma. Sir Ian McKellen is, as always, astounding, and effortlessly sinks into a range of emotions; from menacing to devastated, McKellen brings a depth to the character like only he can. The late Brad Renfro, who tragically died in 2008 after a heroin overdose, is equally impressive as Todd; he is the catalyst to the awakening of Dussanders past, and without a convincing performance from him the rest of the film just wouldn’t have been able to maintain the suspension of disbelief.
Unfortunately, after strong performances from all involved and a fast paced first/half of the second act, Apt Pupil steadily loses its way. The initial set up is tense, thrilling and entirely unmissable, but once it occurs the plot meanders on and occasionally repeats certain events to, I assume, prolong to run time. The finale has also been dramatically altered from that of the novels, but this isn’t particularly a critisism; the book is a completely different kettle of fish, and if the climax of that was tacked onto the end of the movie adaptation it certainly would have been baffling.
It’s not the best adaptation, but Apt Pupil is a thoroughly enjoyable, if not occasionally disturbing, watch.