It's easy to see why Stephen King's novella "Apt Pupil" endured so many false starts and went through so many creative teams on its way to the screen. As the final, Bryan-Singer-directed version illustrates, it's a story that just may be too subtly incendiary for Hollywood hands to render effectively.
Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) is a teen-ager who's a little too smart for his own good. After careful study and extensive research, he determines that his elderly neighbor, Arthur Denker (Ian McKellen), is actually Kurt Dussander, a Nazi war criminal who's eluded capture for some 40 years. When Todd confronts the old man with his accusations, we're stunned to learn that his motive isn't justice, or even blackmail: He merely wants to hear all of Dussander's war stories, to feed his sick fascination with the details of the 20th century's greatest atrocity.
Dussander has no choice but to comply, and he dutifully follows Todd's direction to "tell me everything." But in the course of a year, their relationship becomes increasingly symbiotic, until it's unclear who is using who -- and which of the two is the greater sadist.
Renfro, unfortunately, doesn't play sadism well. He's too white-bread and even too old for the part (13 in the novella, Todd has here been reimagined as an only marginally believable 16). On the page, the character operated from a center of nasty manipulation and smarty-pants megalomania, but Renfro's performance conveys no such complexities. He's merely your average adolescent, and we thus have no clue why he's moved to any of his extreme actions. What King saw as an intrinsic sexual maladjustment is only hinted at when Todd's Dussander-related worries prevent him from enjoying the all-American pastime of receiving fellatio from the town tramp.
The soft-soap of its central figure extends to the film's outer parameters. Even a scene of Dussander roasting a stray cat in an oven has been altered so that the cute feline scoots away at the last possible second. "Schindler's List" this is not.
Singer's only significant contribution to the story is the repeated juxtaposition of Nazi iconography with images of Todd's school life. A sign seen hanging in a hallway reads, "Dare to be a leader," and something as innocuous as a graduation ceremony is blown up in ominous magnitude until it's a stand-in for a full-on Berlin rally.
The implications are not only obvious but facile, and they couldn't be further from the thrust of King's work. Ever the moralist, the author believes that evil walks among us, sometimes in forms we can't recognize. Singer seems to assert that we all are evil, doomed to unspeakable acts by the thrill of the mob. It's third-grade cynicism, and I don't believe it for a minute.