Still, and always will be, one of the greatest movies ever filmed, from a wonderful, lesser-read story by the master Stephen King.
Apt Pupil. 1998. Directed by Bryan Singer. Screenplay by Brandon Boyce; based on the novella by Stephen King from the collection Different Seasons.
Starring Ian McKellen, Brad Renfro, Joshua Jackson, Mickey Cottrell, Michael Reid MacKay, Ann Dowd, Bruce Davison, James Karen, Marjorie Lovett, David Cooley, Blake Anthony Tibbetts, Heather McComb, Katherine Malone, Grace Sinden, & David Schwimmer. Canal+/Phoenix Pictures/Bad Hat Harry Productions.
Rated 14A. 111 minutes.
Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of Bryan Singer’s directing. Not that he’s bad. There’s something about his style that doesn’t always attract me. I’ve not seen his feature debut, though The Usual Suspects is a great film; slightly overrated, but great nonetheless. Sometimes I feel like Singer is a bit too focused on the look of things and forgets there needs to be proper substance.
Apt Pupil suffers partly because of that disease. In a quest to get the atmosphere and the mood correctly dark, as well as unsettling, Singer works off the adapted screenplay from Brandon Boyce, which is the first problem. The original novella by Stephen King is an intense, tight little tale that unwinds into an absolute massacre, both figuratively and literally. Boyce does the source material a disservice by both watering down some of the more disturbing aspects, replacing that with weak storytelling. However, resting the weight of the movie on the shoulders of Ian McKellen and the 14-year-old Brad Renfro was a wise casting choice that ultimately transcends what mistakes were made in the writing. The film is nowhere near perfect, definitely not close to being as good the novella. Yet I dig it. With an eerie mood and a feeling of pure evil hovering around every last frame, Apt Pupil is a wonderful character study of two men at highly different points in their life: one is a former Nazi Sturmbannführer that worked in the concentration camps during World War II named Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen), now living in California as Arthur Denker and hiding his identity nearing the end of his life; the other, a young high school student named Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) on the verge of starting his life, ready to graduate, and harbouring a darkness within that desperately seems to want to get out.
The juxtaposed scene of Dussander at dinner with everybody then hearing his various conversations playing through Todd’s head is perfect. First of all we see how the duality of these type of men, former Nazis, is part of their terror. Dussander moved from a life of hideous war crimes to one of a quiet neighbourhood old man, the kind who can sit with normal people and talk with them while leaving that other life somewhere behind him.
Later on, Dussander starts to fall back into his old ways. This is where we see that whereas he’s able to hide his true identity so well there’s still only a very thin skin holding it inside. It all begins when Todd makes him put the SS costume on. Immediately we see the regression into that brainwashed state of marching, saluting, and this signals a change. Not long after Dussander tries to put a cat in his oven, though isn’t successful. Literally moving back to the ways of the concentration camp. There’s also a parallel between Dussander, his past, and the sinister intent of Todd. He is a little twisted; more so in the novella. But Renfro’s Todd is shown to be sick in his own way.
One of the scenes that gets to me most is when Todd showers at school, then finds himself transported to the showers of Auschwitz, the frail and skinny bodies standing around him. There’s a very King feel here. Ripped straight from the pages of his writing almost. I also think the brief with the cat is great because it shows that lingering feeling in Dussander that wants to start killing again; the fact he attempts to put it in an oven is scarily perfect. I’m also a huge fan of that last moment set to “Das Ist Berlin” (performed by Liane Augustin & The Boheme Bar Trio) – without spoiling anything overtly there’s this powerful use of the look in Dussander’s eyes, the editing with Todd and his guidance counsellor/the basketball rim (that gives a feeling of sport; in that the young kid sees his actions as a form of play). That whole finishing scene really puts a cap on the visual elements, as one of the better executed sequences overall.
This brings me to my biggest problem: the writing. I know the original novella is risky, it’s a touchy story to try adapting closely. But I can’t help feeling that to be honest to the prevalent themes you’ve really got to keep many of the elements King put into the plot. For instance – SPOILERS FOR BOOK READERS AHEAD! – instead of Dussander forcing Todd into the basement where the kid is in turn forced to kill the vagrant (played fabulously by Elias Koteas), in the story Todd kills homeless vagrants, and the story takes place over about four years, so there’s this really monstrous side to the kid that comes out even more than in this screenplay. Most of all it’s the brutality we’re missing. In a story already tackling the Holocaust and the obsession many develop with it, I’m not sure why Boyce didn’t try to retain a few of the more intense, savage pieces. I suppose because King doesn’t do much, first or last, to make Todd Bowden too sympathetic. The film goes too hard at trying to humanise both men, slightly, instead of showing the monster within each of them, one that grows in a symbiotic sense as Todd and Dussander go on similar yet separate paths.
This film is due for a remake by a writer and director willing to go the full way. Singer’s effort captures a fascinating atmosphere, it contains two powerful performances that are worth EVERY second and every penny. Unfortunately there’s a lot lacking in comparison to what is a pleasantly shocking story by the master of horror, Mr. King. I’m not always a stickler for screenwriters keeping dead on with a novel or other source material. In this case the whole film would have been better served by circling more closely the original intentions of the author.
Secret Window. 2004. Directed & Written by David Koepp; based on the novella Secret Window, Secret Garden by Stephen King from the collection Four Past Midnight.
Starring Johnny Depp, John Turturro, Maria Bello, Timothy Hutton, Charles S. Dutton, Len Cariou, Joan Heney, John Dunn-Hill, Vlasta Vrana, Matt Holland, Gillian Ferrabee, Bronwen Mantel, & Elizabeth Marleau. Grand Slam Productions/Columbia Pictures Corporation/Mel’s Cite du Cinema.
Rated 14A. 96 minutes.
While I do love Stephen King’s full length novels, some of his deeper, more penetrating work is found in the novels and short stories with which he fills the rest of his time aside from writing epic, sprawling books. I’ve read almost everything King has done, except for a few books here or there. As far as the short story and novella collections, I’ve run the gamut. So many great tales, such compelling writing. The collection from which Secret Garden is adapted, Four Past Midnight, also contains The Langoliers, which has also seen a tv movie treatment. It further has two more novellas, though neither of those has been adapted on film or for television.
The novella Secret Window, Secret Garden tells the story of Mort Rainey (played here by Johnny Depp), a novelist who one day is visited by a man named John Shooter (the ever wonderful John Turturro) accusing him of having plagiarised a story of his own. Mix in a failed marriage, an ex-wife (Maria Bello) that cheated on him that’s currently in a relationship with the same man, Ted (Timothy Hutton), and there’s plenty of psychological tension, as well as real life horror. Although there are a few portions of the movie that could have been tighter, some dialogue that doesn’t work properly or well as it should, Secret Window improves on a couple aspects of the novella, mainly the ending; I do like the source, but this adaptation makes things more sinister, more eerie. Not everything works. What does work is the gradual sense of reality slipping away, as the script leans deep into the perspective of Mort and Depp is able to carry that with a top notch performance. Even if there wasn’t enough to ultimately feel as scary as it ought to, writer-director David Koepp does well by coming to a different conclusion than the original story and at least pulls the tension tight for most of the runtime. Far as King adaptations go this is absolutely better than most.Something I love about both the writing of Mort’s character and the performance by Depp is that the feeling of being a writer comes across effortlessly. As someone whose days have been filled before by naps, the lure of that comfy couch, food, cigarettes (and before I went sober, booze and so on), Mort feels impossibly real. Of course that comes from King as an author himself, putting what he knows into the character. He knows exactly what it’s like. More than that, Depp ingrains a sense of that writer’s life in the performance. This could actually come off easily as a standard character, and in a way he is, but Depp allows for more than that and brings his talent to the table in spades. Just how he sulks, heading back to the couch for comfort, picking away at his food, and even laying on the floor with his dog, all in lieu of actually being productive and doing some writing.
Overall, the cinematography is solid, courtesy of Fred Murphy (Auto Focus, The Mothman Prophecies, Stir of Echoes & more). The look of the film has a rich look, and at the same time the colours are muted; not too bright, yet not muddled either. It goes well with the mood of the story. On top of that, Murphy captures certain shots interestingly, and Koepp makes nice choices as director to keep the visual aspect of the movie exciting. At times, you could almost see this falling into a melodramatic tv-styled production. What saves it is the production value itself. In addition to the nice look, the score is phenomenal. There are foreboding scenes filled with tension, suspense enough to choke you, and a large part of this is due to the music from Philip Glass and Geoff Zanelli. On one hand, Zanelli is more of a blockbuster type composer, some nice titles under his belt. On the other hand, Glass has done some large scale stuff, but his strengths lie in the smaller, more heart-filled stories, working on everything from the recent Leviathan to Errol Morris’ groundbreaking (and life changing) The Thin Blue Line. Somewhere between the two men their talent converges to become a pulsating wall of sound. Many moments are the typical mystery-thriller sounding pieces. At other times Glass and his sensibilities ring through, an ambient and soft glow of music hovering around the scene, and then there are those unexpected bursts of sonic goodness which are expected of the unusual, talented composer.
A lot of people, that don’t read his books enough, usually peg King as a horror writer. As if he does nothing else. Secret Window doesn’t contain much horror, other than the psychological sort and a slice of existential dread. Most of what becomes scary in this story concerns watching poor Mort try and distinguish what is reality, and what is fiction. There’s a large focus on the theme of fiction blurring into reality, which ultimately plays into the very end of the plot. Before that we already see how the story Shooter confronts Mort about parallels the life of the author, his failed marriage and subsequent divorce, the paranoia and suspicion, et cetera. Best of all is that psychological deterioration of Mort into which Koepp allows the viewer to fall. His talents for character and plot are what makes him capable of actually adapting King, a task not many who take on one of his stories are capable of achieving. He doesn’t write it all perfectly, some of the comedic elements come off too cheesy even for King. But the mystery and the thriller elements of the screenplay are well done. You may predict how some things play out before the end. Regardless, getting there is mostly a treat.
This is a better novella than it is a film. I don’t think it’s a bad movie, and it’s definitely worthy of 3&1/2 stars. There’s something missing, which I can’t exactly put my finger on. I really dig King’s writing. Again, that novella is a solid read I’ve gone through a couple times. And I even enjoy the adapted end Koepp comes up with better, as I mentioned. So why is it that Secret Window comes up short? Depp’s performance can’t hold up everything. The look and feel of the movie is good, the score comes off fantastic. Yet other than a sequence nearing the end when Mort figures everything out, there isn’t any overtly innovative filmmaking at play, nothing other than a bit of interesting camera work to compliment the storytelling. No matter how good some of the shots are and despite the atmosphere, the nice colouring all around, Secret Window is mostly just the Depp show. Were there more interesting, bold choices by Koepp, aside from the changed ending, this could be great. The directing isn’t bad, at all. King and his storytelling simply deserve more than run of the mill thrills. I can say all this, and still I own the DVD, I pop it on once every so often. It isn’t bad. Just could be much more.