Book vs. Film: Apt Pupil
People are just people, like you. I think about this phrase often on the days when I work downtown in a small used bookstore. Some people are really just folks, reading their Ludlum's and Sheldon's, and are harmless. There are people who read narrischkeit like Eat, Pray, Love, profess it to be feminist literature of highest idiom and insist, upon every visit, that you read it already (no. NO.) People who read Clive Barker still exist, surprisingly, and I find they are some of the most identifiable readers; not by dress or manner, but by the weather that hangs around them. It's an intense atmosphere and not completely dissimilar from Pigpen. Our collection of history books, specifically WWII, is hundreds of books deep, regularly populated and picked through, and this is where I say: people are just people. They shouldn't make you nervous. Consider, readers, regular customers of WWII and Nazi Germany. "Anything specifically Holocaust related. That's the good stuff" was a reply given to my question about why history?, delivered dryly and without irony. They come in regularly for the good stuff. People. William Gass said that history likes both size and winning, and at first I thought maybe that was the draw. Is it informative? Is it comforting to know the ending? A release? Escape?
In the case of Todd Bowden, it lit him like a match.
Apt Pupil is a story about the capacity for evil and the will to do it. Todd, the eponymous apt pupil, stalks a Nazi war criminal in hiding, Kurt Dussander, and then one day shows up on his doorstep to blackmail Dussander into telling him that nasty, that gooshy stuff of the war that you won't find in a book. Todd declares this his GREAT INTEREST. His coup de foudre. You've been warned.
The plot of the book and film are plenty similar until the ending. There are two differences I feel compelled to mention. The first: the timeline is much longer. Four years--especially teenaged years--is a sizable, office-term period of time. The single year of the film, while easier to follow I suppose and certainly compact, is comparatively anemic. Secondly, the characters: this deserves a dive. Allow me to elaborate. A lot of the differences in the film one feels safe in assuming that they are a result of those two key things, but this is a story about people, who are just people (like you!). Character changes change the coin of the story, then.
Let's discuss Dussander first. He is rotely evil (Nazi! fun with synonyms! easy!), malicious, yet in both the film and book he manages to evoke sympathetic responses from an audience that is mortified to confess it. Some of the reluctant sympathy can be attributed to being sidled narratively alongside someone as hell-bound as Todd. Todd is unexplainable, but one may begin to rationalize the complexity of Dussander. Stockholm syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc. A significant change between novella and film is Dussander's appearance and the condition of his accoutrement; he is a person rotting alive in the novel. He reeks, his toothpick threadbare house reeks, the bourbon he drinks out of cartoon'd jelly jars: reeks. He says and does dreadfully disgusting old man things, but he also does a might more things sinister and terrible. I'm going to tell you: that's not his first hobo murder rodeo. It's important to note this, and that Dussander had buried five other bodies in his basement prior to the one he was burying when he had a heart attack (in the film, he doesn't actually kill the guy; Todd does. Another example of a small but major change that impacts the opinion of Dussander. I digress) and it smelled like dang dead bodies in that house. There was no way he was gonna get out of that one; he was going to get caught, eventually. But the reader is aware that he is capable of murder beyond his time with the SS, and not just botching it, and that he does so as climatic stress-relief.
And I want you to know that he kills that cat, actually, and a number of others on the regular before moving on to the homeless. That small scene in the book was so traumatic for me, so upsetting, that upon watching I was simultaneously relieved that it wasn't as graphic (or, pointedly, that it was unsuccessful) as the scene in the book, and disappointed that it didn't go there because he is that terrible.
But he is a little delightful, I'm ashamed to admit, in the film. In my defense, I offer two words: Ian McKellan. It is math, it is logic--it just happens!--like magic.
Some of it could be the changes: film Dussander is sharply dressed, clean, polite. He has teeth. I found myself loving the interactions between Todd and Dussander because this Dussander, the more palatable Dussander, is still a hell of a snake and seems to rather enjoy rushing his rat. This is more readable on film (blessed McKellan eye-work), and so this change is both understandable and enjoyable, even. When he hisses in his snakiest tongue about the blackmail insurance letter he wrote, looped on his lowest branch and reaching blithely into Todd's personal space to stress and disorient him, one squirms. He is a much more effective bully, but this also has something to do with film Todd being a little milchig brute who needs the steady hollered outta his feet.
That ain't the Todd Bowden of the novella. Not this Brad Renfro, with his staring--just that, staring. He does not manage a glare, but squints and stares blankly with a grimace of seeming constipation. Otherwise, a diligent enough actor--and dumb even-for-the-nineties haircut; he certainly seems troubled, doesn't he? And sexually crippled, the bane of the simplistic existence of a male teenager, I'd assume. He is impotent in the film, but is it not frightening to learn in the book that he has sex a handful of times and reaches sexual climax, to much fanfare and exquisite joy, by imagining that he is sadistically torturing his lover? As a woman: ay, yes. I'd like it to be noted that my opinion would, if it were absolutely unavoidable, be for the former sexually unfortunate encounter, thank you.
Until he kills Dussander's Mr. Economical (ten clams? get it together, girl!) in the basement, though, he's mostly just a creep. And there are a lot of small choices on the part of the film that seem purposeful in making Todd seem more like a rageful, impulsive teenager capable of cruelty but possessing batteries gone a shineless against the guarantee (he trips himself up, but nothing human skins when he falls)--his single murder is a good example of this. I understand wanting to tone down the more violent aspects, but in respect to this particular story: no sir. Knowing that he's already killed a number of people by this time (also important to note they are all derelicts, or, as King chooses, "stewbums") really clarifies the situation at hand and Todd's character at once. It also explains why film Todd returns to bury ol' $10 in the basement after returning from the hospital, whereas book Todd cleans up the situation immediately, professionally, accompanied by a litany of profanity and threat for Dussander. Todd is a criminal. And he cleans up the crime scene first because that is what must be done. You need to call the wolf, eh, Dussander?
But, either way: we get the idea. He's a psychotic asshole. The ending for this story is where things really deviate, and it's also where I think it cinches the win for the book (in this case I am considering everything from the schlimazel in the basement and Dussander's heart attack on to be "the ending").
It is important to the story that we know that Todd's a proficient murderer prior to Dussander's heart attack and he manages a number more before he is ostensibly killed (if not, jailed. King just says "they took him down"; I feel safe in assuming he is worm-meat) and gets what he has coming. When Ed French confronts him, he invites him to join "the fucking kraut in hell" and shoots him dead. He then goes to a place he often visited with his .30-.30 in the novella and fantasized about: a spot perfectly positioned above the highway, where he can pick off drivers and passengers at will. This time, though, his gun is loaded. Is this the real life? Or is it just fantasy?
This is narratively perfect to parri passu Dussander's suicide, which is slightly--but importantly--different between the book and film. It is worth mentioning, first, that his "discovery" by his roommate in the hospital is rather different between the two, but this I leave to you, reader, as I find that it is powerful regardless of the medium. But back to Dussander and his shuffle off the mortal coil; in the film, he blows air into his I.V. and has another heart attack, but this one is fatal. Book: he steals a number of Seconal from a supply closet and methodically takes them, smartly, like someone who had thought of this thing in their freetime, just in case. Three, and then three more, and then he waits until he is just drifting off to take a lethal amount. In his rapid slide from sedation into unconsciousness, the idea occurs to him that instead of blissful rest, the terrible dreams that plagued him (and poignantly, Todd) throughout the novella, the nightmares that only ceased once he loosed the pressure of the evil inside him and came back with a murder, await. And they won't ever be placated or escaped. It is too late.
They both do what they do in the end to escape responsibility, consequences. It surely says something that Dussander, in both film and book, chooses a cowardly death (I do not understand the legend of urb method of air embolism, but it is truly pathetic) while Todd is cruelly actionable. I suppose, really, when into the grit of things, that threatening to lie about being methodically molested by Ed French, guidance counselor and normal everyman, is not really so pale a shade of evil as shooting a bunch of people. Both take a hatred as intense as a thermos held hot in hell. Can you imagine? No. Don't. People are just people. I maintain, though, that this vile measure on film Todd's part is in in no way true to the character of the novella. Bryan Singer might have been going for a dark ending, one that keeps Todd alive to stomp his feet, clutch at his pearls, and petulantly threaten others in escalating spades. I suggest, reader, that he botched the intentions of the story with this ending.
So: BOOK. Novella, technically. Todd asks his failed sexual conquest, "Do you ever wonder why people do what they do?" And if you worry about that wonderment, then this story is for you. As Todd is reading/hearing the nitty gritty of the Holocaust, we are reading a serial killer's bildungsroman. It's astonishing stuff, and the story relies on the ending the novella provides to complete its story about Dussander and Todd, and it depends on the characters--as exposed in the novella--to build that dreadfully sinister dynamic. Because people are just people, like you. Recht?