Leading up to watching ‘My Friend Dahmer’ for the first time, I didn’t have the benefit of being too aware of Jeffrey Dahmer or what was known about his life prior to becoming a serial killer. And from my understanding, the film written and directed by Marc Meyers was not actually a direct adaptation the life of Dahmer per se, but rather an adaptation of yet another’s perspective on Dahmer’s life. I felt it was important to read through the original graphic novel by Derf Backderf before watching the film, to better understand this particular story from his personal experience, rather than having it relayed to me through lens of another. Ultimately the film is more of a third-hand perspective, on the second-hand perspective of Dahmer’s final years of ‘innocence’ that lead him on the path to becoming a serial killer.
What struck my first when watching the film after reading the graphic novel was the shift in perspective from Backderf’s POV to Dahmer’s. The graphic novel relied on Backderf’s ability to visually present an underlying grotesque darkness that permeated Dahmer and the world around him. With continuous retrospective commentary from Backderf, reflecting on not only his own interactions with Dahmer, but filling in the gaps of his knowledge at the time with pieced together accounts from others, as well as Dahmer himself. Together, this painted a very striking picture on both the page and in my mind, conveying a very deliberate sense of placing me into the mind of Dahmer.
The contrasts with how the film approached presenting the overall story of Dahmer’s teenage life. Here both Backderf (Alex Wolff) and Dahmer (Ross Lynch) inhabit is relatively grounded world, with Dahmer himself as the only real outlier. The world is framed in a way that only serves to highlight Dahmer’s haunting outlook on the word. Without the commentary from Backderf, we are delivered a very cold and distant look at Dahmer’s social and personal life. I felt almost uncomfortable watching. As if I was prying into the life of a troubled young man, who was in desperate need of some help. Whereas, the graphic novel drew me in to the mindset of Dahmer with Backderf’s insight, with layers of thought and interpretations, presenting what Backderf learnt about Dahmer after the fact, and re-applying it to their original interactions. The film itself is perhaps a truer representation of Backderf’s initial awkward, teenage interactions with Dahmer. But it’s missing the substance which is what interested me about the original graphic novel.
With the release of recent tv shows like ‘Mindhunter’ coinciding with this film’s release this year, mainstream entertainment has re-introduced us to the reality that serial killers who end up on this path are in part products of their environment. Failure to spot the signs early on, and not giving them the support they need is what enables them act on their darker urges without oversight. I felt this idea come through after reading the graphic novel, but that line of thought isn’t present in the film.
While the film has a genuine and deliberate sense of unease throughout, I didn’t get the impression that this is quite what the original story was intended to be. I almost feel as the film misinterpreted aspects of Dahmer’s life, by trivialising what he went through and just painted him as being ‘creepy’. We already have the information on what Dahmer did later in life, and we know what atrocities he committed. To take us back in time, to before he committed those acts, shouldn’t we be focusing on what lead him down this path?
For example, the graphic novel did a good job explaining that Dahmer being homosexual at the time wasn’t actually too out of the ordinary in retrospect, as Backderf now knows others at the time who were also closeted. But as the film heavily intertwined his darker impulses with his sexuality, it puts Dahmer into a different light. Simply branding him as a ‘sexual deviant’ of sorts from the start, without the added layer of commentary or analysis indicating that this was a closed off teenager who didn’t have the support to better manage his impulses or actions.
The film has another scene where Backderf was heavily drinking in the back of Backderf’s car on the way to a prank. It was established earlier on in the film that Dahmer had started drinking quite heavily. The scene in the car was was where Backderf seemingly finally saw Dahmer ‘for what he really was’ once he saw just how much he drank without any inhibitions. Once again the film didn’t go far enough to show us why he was drinking, as I personally felt like this entirely re-framed the reason why he drank compared to the graphic novel. I originally got the impression that Backderf wasn’t necessarily drinking because he enjoyed it, but rather to numb himself to his issues at home and his interactions with people socially.
This issue ties into my thoughts on Dahmer’s final moments in the film compared to the graphic novel, which was a pretty drastic change. The film ends with Backderf and Dahmer’s relationship souring, largely on Backderf’s end, and Dahmer almost deciding to kill Backderf on their last moments together. Here Backderf was presented as his first potential victim. The graphic novel never showed him doing anything quite overtly violent at this stage against people. It almost felt out of character, and didn’t quite fit the common descriptions of what we know of his victims later on. When he does go after his first victim in the book, it is not actually seen on screen, and we only see the aftermath in the form of Dahmer being stopped by the police in his car overnight. And once Dahmer is free of the police, he immediately falls into tears and being repulsed by his actions. After this first act of murder, his next victim wasn’t sought out for another for 9 years, so I imagine it was a gradual transformation for him. With the book highlighting the cause of this change. But the film ends with Dahmer almost killing Backderf, and almost immediately courting his first victim the next day. Re-framing the aftermath at night with a look of regret, with a the eager daytime courting of the victim with a smile on his face. The graphic novel perhaps attempted to humanise him, and film framing him only ever as a monster.
I originally had the impression that once his school life is over, and both his social and home lives were no longer placating him, we see that he finally feels free to explore acting on his urges gradually. Although the film perhaps unsympathetically showed Dahmer as a little too eager to act on his impulses immediately. While his actions cannot be condoned, there is value in analysing why humans do what they do.
The film ‘My Friend Dahmer’ does what it sets out to do. It presents an expected story of a creepy young man, giving in to his darker impulses, that eventually lead him to becoming a serial killer. Whereas the graphic novel presents a nuanced, multifaceted outlook into how ones environment can enable one to act on their destructive tendencies.