Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Adaptation and Adapted: Apt Pupil

| by Justin Thomas |

Of the four novellas in Stephen King’s Different Seasons one had the biggest challenge in its adaptation to the screen. While Shawshank had icky things with which it had to deal, Apt Pupil dealt with pure evil, the purest evil of 20th Century, and the central idea of the story is one difficult to acknowledge. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and we need films like Schindler’s List and every documentary ever made about the Holocaust so the genocide is not forgotten. Looking at the results of it is vastly different than trying to understand how it happened, but King’s Apt Pupil tries.

So thematically, the adaptation had much working against it. When it was produced didn’t help the resulting film either because the first two adaptations from the collection set the bar high. Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption are well-crafted works that stay true to the stories from which they sprung. They aren’t just well-crafted works. Talk to enough lovers of movies and sooner, rather than later, you’ll find one who will put one if not both in some sort of “best of” list. Pedestrian movies were not made from King’s Different Seasons before Apt Pupil and adapting one of the two final novellas would have been a daunting task to maintain the level of quality established by the first two adaptations.

Bryan Singer’s 1998 film Apt Pupil departs from the rules established by Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption in that it tells a story completely different from King’s novella. The core idea remains: a boy discovers an ex-Nazi living near him and, rather than alert the authorities, asks the ex-Nazi to tell him everything about the death camps. Sequences remain: their early conversations, the costume, cats, bums, meeting with the guidance counselor, the heart attack. Dussander’s stories and the damage they do to Todd remain. But King’s Apt Pupil works to turn Todd into a beast capable of atrocities while Singer’s Apt Pupil works to turn Todd into a kid who made a mistake and will go to extraordinary lengths in the cover up.

The change in story is so dramatic the title, Apt Pupil, doesn’t apply to the film. To stay true to the novella Todd needs to not only hear the stories and be disturbed by them, but the stories need to change him. They need to inspire him to start to think differently about people given their race, religion and ethnic background with destruction of those different being the only course of action. He starts to kill bums, as does Dussander, to ease the nightmares and help clear his mind to get his life away from Dussander to some sort of normalcy. King ties sexuality, the power of words and images and bending the will of the weak-minded to a descent into evil and it works. Todd becomes Dussander’s student and he winds up being a very good student. The conclusion of Todd’s story mirrors that of Nazi Germany: filled with hate, he goes on a shooting spree that kills many before he’s finally taken down by authorities.

Singer stops well short of turning Todd into a Nazi. The stories bother him, he struggles with school and he’s caught in a trap from which he can’t escape, but he doesn’t become the evil. He kills a bum, but the act is more self defense than murder, not an evil from inside him let loose by Dussander and his stories. Once Dussander and Todd decide to part company with one another, Todd does nothing but attempt to forget his past mistake, cover it up or both. His method of keeping the guidance counselor from going public with the knowledge? Blackmail. Todd could be Dussander’s apt pupil if and only if getting away with it is a lesson Dussander gave, but it’s not and Dussander’s secret is eventually spilled in both stories.

Todd is the All American Boy. Great student, great athlete, a boy every parent wants to raise and a boy every parent would feel deep failure about if their son went in with a Nazi. It’s an interesting choice by King to show that the best of us, not the rabble, uneducated or poor, could be taken in by Dussander and the evil. Evil resides not only in monsters but in all of us and it’s simply a matter of finding the key to unlock it. King found the key while Singer left it locked away.

The question to ask is whether staying true to King’s Apt Pupil would yield a movie anyone would want to see. There are difficult things to read in the novella; my first read left me so disturbed I slept with a light on. At age 20. It made me think about things I really didn’t want to think about, and I can’t say I enjoyed it then or now. King’s construction of the story is worth the read but the themes are difficult. They’re supposed to be. Would that truly be a movie anyone would want to see? If Singer and screenwriter Brandon Boyce made the change to make a movie watchable, I get it and understand. If they lacked the courage to truly adapt the story, I have more difficulty understanding the change.

Singer’s Apt Pupil is the sore thumb among the films made from the novellas in Different Seasons. It doesn’t stay true to the source enough to say it tells the same story. It is not as well-made, the characters aren’t developed, the story is not as tight and the performances are not overwhelming. It’s not terrible, but it’s not what it could be and it’s not King’s Apt Pupil story. The three novellas and their subsequent adaptations all provide a glimpse into the result of adapting an existing work for the screen and what things need care when doing so. Call the collection Adaptation 101 for those of you scoring at home.

No comments:

Post a Comment