An adaptation of the novella Apt Pupil in his Different Seasons collection, the same book that includes “The Body,” which Rob Reiner filmed as STAND BY ME. APT PUPIL was produced in 1988 by Richard Kobritz who made SALEM’S LOT and CHRISTINE and starred Nicol Williamson and Ricky Schroder. “They shot for about ten weeks,” said King. “I got a rough assemblage of about three quarters of the film. Then they ran out of money. And that was good! That sucker was real good!”
King’s novella is about a young boy, Todd, played by Schroder, who has become obsessed with his father’s magazines and photos depicting Nazi Germany’s death camps. One day, in his Southern California town, Todd recognizes an old man as Nazi S.S. death camp officer Kurt Dussander (Williamson). What follows is a situation much like MISERY in reverse. The boy literally holds Dussander hostage on a daily basis, forcing the old man to tell him gory details, the “gooshy parts” of life in the concentration camps. The situation sets horrifying events into motion, reviving an evil thirst within Dussander and awakening equally disturbing desires within Todd that he never knew he possessed. Wrote Kobritz in a response to King’s praise for the unfinished film, “Sadly, Steve may be right about APT PUPIL. My intention was to create a film which incorporated the heart and characterization of ‘The Body,’ with the horror of Stephen King at his most real. It may very well have been the definitive translation of Stephen King into film.” Kobritz declined to be interviewed about the project, which he co-produced with William Frye, a veteran of the THRILLER TV series, but agreed to respond to questions in writing, without discussing the circumstances of its collapse, reportedly just eleven days shy of completion. Ashley Laurence worked just two days on the project before it fell apart, reportedly because checks to the cast and crew began bouncing. Richard Masur had also been cast in the role of Todd’s teacher.
Kobritz had intended the film as a vehicle for James Mason, with whom he made SALEM’S LOT. Mason was to play the role of Dussander, but passed away just a week before Kobritz said he concluded the rights purchase to make the film. “Alec Guinness and Paul Scofield were talked to,” wrote Kobritz about recasting the Nazi role. “Both had no desire to portray realistic villains this late in their careers. John Gielgud had just concluded nine months in Germany with WAR AND REMEMBRANCE and did not want to repeat the Nazi experience. Nicol Williamson ultimately gave an outstanding performance in the tortured role of Dussander. Young Ricky Schroder was our first and only choice to play the boy.”
Kobritz hired British filmmaker Alan Bridges to direct. Bridges had directed Mason and a high-powered cast in 1988’s THE SHOOTING PARTY, a meditation on the fading English aristocracy in the years preceding World War I. Bridges said he was a fan of King’s books. “I think he’s one of the great storytellers,” said Bridges by phone from his home outside London. “What attracted me to APT PUPIL was that it was such a tense search through an odd relationship. Although it was about two-on the face of it- destructive human beings, it had some hope to it.
Dussander and Todd had an affinity which made them rather better people once they got to know each other. That opened life up to them. Unfortunately, of course, it was a dead end. I thought it was a marvelous story. When I read the novella, I thought it was an even better story. I don’t really think the script measured up to the novella, to be honest.”
Bridges shot the film from a script commissioned by Kobritz from Jim and Ken Wheat, written without King’s input. Kobritz had abandoned an earlier draft written by B.J. Nelson. “I wrote a version that was very faithful to the novella, under Kobritz’ instructions,” said Nelson about his unused draft. “It was a little too shocking to people, too disturbing.”
Nelson speculated that the film’s treatment of Nazism kept it from getting made. “We didn’t condemn it,” said Nelson. “We put it in the pot and let the evil boil. It wasn’t pro Nazi, but Jewish people hated it. Hated it. It was a hard subject to get past the Jewish establishment in Hollywood because Stephen King was too good at what he was doing.”
Bridges didn’t remember reading Nelson’s original script, but agreed with his assessment of the subject. “It is dark,” said Bridges. “Let’s face it. A young man with that sort of obsession finds that he can further it because he’s hit base, really found a reservoir of what he wants. What fascinated me, what is not so obvious, is that between them, they could suggest a better life for each other.”
Bridges said he added new dimensions to the film to lighten the overall mood of its dark, dark story. “I introduced things like a puppet show, and I changed all the locations,” he said. “The locations were to be little dark corners and alleyways. I changed it all to open places, except where Dussander lived. I had Dussander and Todd go out. They went into a cafe. Even the most dreadful human beings have some sort of communion with other human beings. You could see them laugh together and have fun together.”
Bridges said he wanted to suggest in the film that the evil of Todd and Dussander and Nazism was not incarnate. “Certainly Hitler should never have happened if France and Britain hadn’t been so punitive after the Treaty of Versailles,” he said. “In a way we created Hitler. I was trying to say something like that.”
Bridges said the film’s ending, as written, retained King’s depressing finale. Todd, after Dussander is captured and commits suicide, realizes that the police are close to figuring out that both he and Dussander were delving into their own, separate murder sprees of bums and derelicts. In King’s novella, it simply seems that Todd goes off the deep end, takes his rifle to the freeway, and begins picking-off motorists. King’s final, cold phrase reads, “It was five hours later and almost dark before they took him down.”
Bridges was preparing to shoot that scene, at the end of location filming in Los Angeles, when the bottom fell out of the production. “I would have had to shoot that,” said Bridges, who had reservations about the ending. “I wanted to find a way to illuminate it. I could’ve made it an act of desperation, rather than just another fanatical killing. I wouldn’t have had to change a word. Maybe an awful lot of mass murderers who deserve what they get, I’m not saying that were pushed to desperation, or to say ‘Yes’ to people when they should have said ‘No.’ If I’d shot that ending, I would’ve made it an act of despair, not desperation, the only way out.”
Bridges said he was crushed when the film fell apart. “It was awful,” said Bridges. “I knew it was going to be good. I’ve made some awful films-don’t worry! If they’d folded up after four weeks, I might’ve actually gone off for a holiday afterwards. But not this one.” Bridges said the production came within an inch of being revived twice, in January of 1988 and January of 1989. “I wouldn’t mind starting from scratch,” he said. “I’d do it for nothing because it’s a great story. This story must be told very soon. I think it’s wonderful because it gives hope. Even for the horrors of human nature, there’s still hope.”
But not according to producer Richard Kobritz. “Approximately two-thirds of the photography had been completed before filming was aborted, “said Kobritz. “More than two years have elapsed since the backers of the film bellied-up and it cannot be revived. It is a dead letter.”