Trigger Warning: The following references sexual harassment.
The Big Picture
- Apt Pupil is one of Stephen King’s darkest stories, exploring the disturbing relationship between a manipulative teenager and an ex-Nazi officer.
- The movie adaptation, directed by Bryan Singer, falls short of capturing the book’s bleak essence and fails to develop the main character effectively.
- Allegations of misconduct against Singer on the set of Apt Pupil further taint the film’s reputation, highlighting uncomfortable parallels between the director and the protagonist’s actions.
Aside from a few classics, there is an endless sea of average or flat-out forgotten Stephen King TV and movie adaptations. But of them all, Apt Pupil is one of the most interesting cases. It’s lifted from a fantastic novella out of King’s golden era, has sibling texts that went on to be some of the author’s most highly acclaimed adaptations, and sports a pretty great cast. That being said, it’s directed by the filmmaker Bryan Singer, who made some choices on the set that would lead to some of his many troubling accusations. Not to mention, it takes a few liberties with the source material that, honestly, make the story less memorable. What is it about Apt Pupil that made it fall to the wayside? Is it a film worth reconsidering? The answer is pretty simple.
Apt Pupil was originally a novella that first appeared in King’s collection, Different Seasons, published in 1982. If you’ve never picked up a copy of this anthology and have no idea what it’s about, then you’re about to realize what a critical text this is to its author’s bibliography. Different Seasons is made up of four different novellas, each taking place in, you guessed it, a different season of the year. The first of these is Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, followed by Apt Pupil, The Body, and The Breathing Method. Two of these have gone on to become some of the most beloved films of the last 50 years. Rita Hayworth would obviously be brought to the screen as The Shawshank Redemption — y’know, the movie that many call the greatest of all time. The Body would undergo a bigger title change as it headed to theaters and would end up being dubbed Stand by Me, possibly the best movie about kids ever made. The Breathing Method is yet to be adapted, but there has been a project in the works from Scott Derrickson for over a decade now. Then, there’s Apt Pupil.
What Is ‘Apt Pupil’ About?
The story of Apt Pupil centers around Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro), a teenager who tracks down and blackmails his elderly neighbor, a former Nazi officer, Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen), who is now a war criminal and living a new life under the pseudonym Arthur Denker. Bowden forces Dussander to tell him stories of his time as an officer, particularly those from his experiences as the head of a concentration camp. Over time, the two develop a strange parasitic sort of relationship where they intimidate and threaten each other to help the other out of tricky situations. This fixation on Dussander’s violent past slowly drives them mad, pushing them to act on evil impulses, and making the truth behind their relationship harder and harder to cover.
‘Apt Pupil’ Is One of the Darkest Stephen King Stories
Simply put, the novella is about as bleak of a story as Stephen King has to offer. It’s easier to write terrible things than actually having to film them and put them on screen for audiences across the world to see, so King didn’t have as challenging of a task as Singer did. That being said, as terrible as these things are, the author did write a horror novella, so that’s part of the trick. It borders on insensitivity at times, but given the dour ending of the novel, I think King successfully pulled his story off.
Singer, on the other hand, manages to cut a large part of what made the novella a tough pill to swallow, but not so much so that the characters become much better people. Here, the difference between the scene in the movie and the novella where Dussander tries to put the cat in the oven doesn’t make as big of a difference. In the book, he’s successful, and in the movie, the cat claws at him enough to where he lets it go, and it runs out of an open window. In the end, it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t end up burning the cat in the movie, because he’s still awful for having tried. Plus, at the end of the day, is an ex-Nazi officer — that’s enough to make him a monster, we don’t need him to burn an animal to death to prove that he is evil! This is the main part of the book that King is actually the one to go a bit too far in, and ultimately functions as a means to shock the reader. Dussander is terrible no matter what, so cutting short some of his shocking scenes from the novella doesn’t affect his character nearly as much as it does Todd Bowden’s.
In both the Apt Pupil book and movie, Todd Bowden is a manipulative sociopath who blackmails Kurt Dussander into telling him stories about his time as a concentration camp commandant. Not only does he have Dussander tell him these stories, but he loves them. Bowden eats these conversations up. He goes over to the old man’s house after school almost every day and eventually starts making appearances on Saturdays. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the book or movie, either way, Bowden is a sick, evil kid.
How Did Bryan Singer Ruin the Ending of ‘Apt Pupil’?
If you haven’t read or seen Apt Pupil, maybe turn away now before you have Bowden’s outcome spoiled for you. Essentially, what ultimately fails the movie is that Bowden doesn’t really have any character development from the beginning to the end. He’s a monster from the get-go. In the novella, Bowden is a highly troubled teenager at the beginning and blackmails Dussander, but he isn’t nearly as malicious as his movie counterpart. While reading the book, there’s a stark difference between the kid who has a disturbing and odd fascination with the Nazis in WWII and the truly terrifying person that he turns into by the end. Not only do you see his character become darker as the story goes on, but the finale of the book takes him to an infinitely sadder and tragic outcome, having him go on a mass shooting spree. He becomes the ultimate evil but is killed five hours later.
In the movie Apt Pupil, Bowden beats a man to death with a shovel, kills a pigeon with a basketball, regularly manipulates people into doing what he says, and literally ends his character’s journey after blackmailing his guidance counselor from reporting his involvement with Dussander. The final shot of Bowden is of him shooting a basketball and the ball going through the hoop, with Bowden’s face looking one hundred percent confident. We’re left to believe that Bowden is going to go off and continue living his life as this terrible, manipulative person, never to pay the price for his actions.
In some ways, the movie’s ending isn’t as dark of an ending as that of the novella, that much is obvious. Though, if you think about it for two seconds, Bowden basically has a free pass to continue committing the actions that he has over the few months that the movie takes place. He got away with all of these crimes, so having the final shot be of him shooting a basket after threatening someone again tells us everything we need to know — Bowden’s work is not finished yet. And if he could get away with it as a kid, wait until he gets older when he has more power than he did as the top student in his class. It’s a troubling way to end a movie with an already depraved story and subject matter.
What Were the Allegations Against Bryan Singer on the Set of ‘Apt Pupil’?
Accusations have been made against Bryan Singer’s conduct on the Apt Pupil set. There’s a scene in the film where a bunch of teenagers are showering, and while filming it, Bryan Singer allegedly made multiple teenage extras take off all of their clothes. They were already instructed, much to their discomfort, to wear peach-colored G-strings that wouldn’t appear on-screen, but Singer insisted that those be taken off as well. This, and Singer’s insistence on having minors work longer labor hours than they were legally allowed, led to multiple lawsuits. Victor Valdovinos, who was only 13 at the time, also has come forth in recent years, stating that Singer groped him on the set.
Some stories came forth about the set of Apt Pupil while the movie was being made, while others have continued to come out over the years. The thing is, Singer was able to continue getting away with his despicable actions for years, all while receiving high levels of acclaim and directing some of the biggest movies in Hollywood. Does the end of his Apt Pupil movie and Todd Bowden getting away with everything reflect some sort of state of mind that Singer could have had about getting away with his monstrous actions over the years? We can’t know for sure, but it surely says something about where he thought a character like Bowden’s life should go. It’s a disgusting ending that eerily mirrors its director’s vile alleged actions and continued success. At least, in our world, the accusations remain top of mind.
Apt Pupil, as it stands, is a bit of a cheesy adaptation already, and doesn’t have an ending that justifies having been subjected to the contents that came earlier. On top of that, its obsession with Nazism, the lead character getting away with his crimes, horrible alleged events during production, and the odd mirror between Bowden and Singer getting away with their crimes, make the film being forgotten a bit easier of a pill to swallow. If you want to get to know the story of Todd Bowden and Kurt Dussander, just stick with King’s novella, and don’t give Bryan Singer any of your money.