It’s a pretty natural reaction to have some degree of fascination with the holocaust. The atrocities committed, the immense number of people murdered, and the idea that a society could somehow let it happen are all things that we can’t entirely understand. We’re horrified and disgusted and afraid it could possibly happen again, but there’s no denying that it’s also interesting, in the same way serial killers are interesting. The desire to know more about these kinds of horrifying events is natural, and it doesn't mean there’s anything wrong with the average person who wants to know.
So as Apt Pupil begins, we may be able to understand why Todd Bowden goes to Dussander to find out about the Nazi experience from a first person perspective. But it doesn't take long to realize that there’s nothing normal about the Todd featured in the novella. Apt Pupil, like Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and The Body, is grounded in reality, however it is a worst case scenario version of reality. For these two sick individuals to find each other and influence each other the way they do, there’s no other way to describe it. While King does clearly try to shoulder some of the blame for how Todd is on his parents’ laissez faire form of discipline and his father’s view of the poor, it’s pretty clear this kid was born unbalanced. With both Todd and Dussander’s actions, this is definitely far more a horror story than either of the two tales that surround it in Different Seasons.
The film version of Apt Pupil is pretty mild by comparison. Director Bryan Singer said he toned down the violence because he didn't want it to appear exploitive. But that change does also change the nature of the characters. While the Todd present in the film is clearly disturbed by his relationship with Dussander, he doesn't come off as callous and cold as his written counterpart. Dussander remains sick and twisted, but perhaps a little less cunning.
Beyond that though, I think he did a good job of condensing the major events. Shortening the timeline so that everything happens in a one year period is an improvement, as I find it a little hard to believe that a guidance counselor is really going to remember someone’s grandfather he met four years ago, especially when he has so many students to take care of. I also think making it so that the vagrant isn't actually dead when Todd arrives, forcing him to finish him off, works really well. It makes the two of them complicit in this murder, and is a good way to make up for Todd not killing all the winos like he does in the novella.
The end result of these changes is that this is less a worst cast scenario and just a bad one. Singer reportedly said that he changed the ending of the story because he didn't feel like he could live up to what King wrote. In the end, I think his ending is just as disturbing in its own way. This Todd may not be a full blown sociopath, but he’s disturbed and it certainly seems that he is going to get away with murder. He’s also now learned tactics of manipulation, and it’s clear he could keep using them for the rest of his life.
Brad Renfro and Ian McKellen are strong actors who make this film work well, but David Schwimmer is just plain bad. His character is supposed to be a smuck, and he is, but something about his delivery of the lines just doesn't work for me. Singer is a strong filmmaker and I love The Usual Suspects and both his X-men films, but this one doesn't really feel like his. Maybe it’s not supposed to. It's an adequately made film, but I wouldn't call it a strong one.
While I was initially disappointed by the lack of violence in this version, I have to ask myself if I would truly want to see an accurate adaptation. I certainly wouldn't want to see any of Todd’s disturbing sex dreams brought to life, and a film that featured so much killing only to end in a shootout murder spree would be so bleak and depressing that you probably would not be able to watch it without it affecting your mood. In retrospect, I think Singer’s decisions were sound. Some things just work better in written form, and this very bleak story is one of them.
A note about The Breathing Method:
While the first three stories of Different Seasons were all adapted into films, the final story was not. I think it’s partially related to the fact that unlike the others, this story is not grounded in reality, and the climax is rather gruesome. The other most likely reason is that it is so short; still technically novella length I assume, but much shorter than the others. However, while re-reading it I couldn't help but think that the story would fit well in an anthology film. Probably not Creepshow, but something like Tales from the Darkside would work well. The fact that it’s framed as a story within a story is even better – the tale is told at a club where men get together to tell each other tales, and each Christmas they tell tales of the uncanny specifically. Fill out a few more details of the club, add in a couple more stories to be told, and you’d have a nice film. One day, perhaps, we could see it happen.