Thursday, July 24, 2008

Apt author

A woman once told Stephen King that she enjoyed his anthology Skeleton Crew but skipped the section where he explained how he came up with the stories. "I'm one of those people," she said, "who don't want to know how the magician does his tricks." Recalling the experience later, King remarked, "I am not a magician and these are not tricks." (Nightmares and Dreamscapes, p. 675)

I suspect many authors would disagree. But it speaks volumes about King's outlook, a key reason he's one of my favorite writers. I went through a phase reading rival fear-meister Dean Koontz before I realized he was all technique and no soul. With King, I'm barely conscious of technique even though his books are more powerful than Koontz's.

These thoughts came back to me recently as I read "Apt Pupil" from Different Seasons, a collection of novellas with a more serious bent than his horror fiction. Three of the novellas have been made into movies, two of them quite excellent: Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption. But I never got around to reading "Apt Pupil," partly because of the unfavorable reviews the movie received, and partly because I doubted King could handle a subject as weighty as the Holocaust.

I am pleased to report that "Apt Pupil" brought into focus all the things I admire about King: his vivid imagination, his sharp attention to detail, his perverse sense of humor, and his mastery at crafting a battle of wills between two characters. But I was also impressed that he tackled material this challenging. He not only had to present a believable Nazi, he also had to confront the question of what makes people evil, all the while telling a compelling story about two unsympathetic characters surrounded by idiots.

The story is set in the 1970s. A pampered suburban youth named Todd Bowden discovers that an elderly neighbor of his is an escaped Nazi commandant named Kurt Dussander. Instead of turning him in, Todd blackmails him into recounting his hideous crimes. Todd once did a research paper on the camps and greatly impressed his teachers, who don't realize he is fascinated by the subject for all the wrong reasons.

The story tempts us to ask which character is more evil. Though Dussander has done worse things than almost any human being alive, Todd has ghastly potential. King depicts both characters as lacking in guilt but filled with fear, haunted by the threat of exposure. Dussander, unlike Todd, rationalizes his actions, giving the standard line about having been just following orders. Todd is simply a sneaky bully who puts on a public face of being a nice, well-adjusted kid.

Even I, a grandson of Holocaust survivors, almost found myself rooting for Dussander. He's smarter and more charming than the boy, and since he begins the story as victim, I had to marvel at the way he maneuvers the situation and turns it to his advantage. It is easy to forget that his cold rationality is in many ways more frightening than Todd's sick perversion. King exploits this deceptive quality of fiction by not letting us get to know any of Dussander's victims until late in the story.

Another question left unanswered is how much Todd's descent into violence is influenced by Dussander. He might have become that way on his own, but we can't be sure. His most obvious internal change surfaces when he privately rationalizes his lack of attraction to his girlfriend by thinking she must be secretly Jewish. (The real reason is that he has violent homoerotic fantasies which take the place of ordinary sexual feelings.) Did he get his anti-Semitism from Dussander, or was it there to begin with? His liberal parents show no signs of prejudice but are trapped in a world of empty platitudes that keep them from seeing what's in front of them. Joseph Reino's book Stephen King (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1988) explains:
King is not saying that benign and "liberating" clichés are inherently wrong or that they cause Todd's inclination toward social misbehavior. Rather, his gothic perspective is that benevolent philosophies, reduced to thoughtless aphorisms and innocuous clichés, are utterly powerless against the boy's adamantine malevolence. (p. 123)
There are political overtones to the story, set at the end of the Vietnam War. Dussander defends himself by accusing America of hypocrisy: "The GI soldiers who kill the innocent are decorated by Presidents, welcomed home from the bayoneting of children and the burning of hospitals with parades and bunting.... Only those who lose are tried as war criminals for following orders and directives" (p. 130). Here and elsewhere, King hints at the idea that Americans tend to have a sense of incomprehension at evils committed by other countries yet fail to see the parallels when the evil is homegrown.

The introspective nature of the story may help explain why the movie (set in the 1980s) didn't work. Ian McKellen gives a fine performance as the aging Nazi, and some of the early scenes are very effective. But the movie quickly becomes artificial, contrived, and tasteless--all the qualities I worried the novella would exhibit.

The problems are various. The process of abridging the plot for screen time makes certain elements seem arbitrary. The racial aspects of Nazism are largely ignored. Most significantly, the film softens the character of Todd, depicting him more as a confused kid who gets in over his head than as an unrelenting psychopath. This change leads the movie to have a very different ending than in the novella.

I suppose the producers felt that audiences needed to be able to relate to the young protagonist, but it creates an imbalance that obscures the story's message about the nature of evil. The film can't even decide what exactly Todd and Dussander are guilty of doing. There are several confusing scenes that leave us unsure whether the two have been murdering animals or simply imagining doing so.

I had the feeling the filmmakers were interpreting the novella as a typical horror story because it was written by Stephen King. They underestimated the source material, a thoughtful fable with something valuable to say about the world. King applied his talents as an entertainer to a subject requiring more depth, and he would not have succeeded if he were merely a magician doing tricks.

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