I remember when Jeffrey Dahmer was killed in prison. It was 1994 and back then I used to wake up to the radio. On that particular day, they were discussing the events that led to Dahmer’s death and how relieved the families of his victims must feel. I was a teenager, very far removed from what the notorious serial killer had done, but I knew who he was. Everyone did. Everyone always will. But for some reason, I felt sad that his life ended the way it did. Not sad for him, of course. But for his family. I thought of his parents. His friends. People who knew him before he became what he will forever be known for. How did they feel about all of it?
Which is why I was very interested in reading Derf Backderf’s memoir, My Friend Dahmer, based on his experience of going to school and being friends with Jeffrey Dahmer. He self-published a comic-book version of it in 2002 and it was a massive success. But since he wasn’t entirely happy with that version, he decided to work on the book he had envisioned all along. The result was My Friend Dahmer, released in 2012. The graphic novel/memoir is written from Backderf’s point of view and at the beginning he explains one of the reasons he created the book: “To you Dahmer was a depraved fiend, but to me he was a kid I sat next to in study hall and hung out with in the band room. You just can’t imagine what it was like once the news of his crimes exploded, or what it’s still like for me whenever I think about our friendship.”
That idea that you could have been friends with someone who would go on to be a serial killer is one that I find interesting and incredibly creepy. How did they not know? Could anyone have done anything to help? Could the fate of all of those victims have been altered if even one person had said something to stop it early on? Fascinating.
But that idea isn’t really part of the movie version. The movie is more of a straightforward coming-of-age story that just happens to be about a serial killer. Or as one reviewer put it, the Napoleon Dynamite of Cannibalism.
The stories are similar and overall the movie stays very true to the book, but because it’s not from Backderf’s point of view, the feel of it is entirely different. Not nearly as creepy. And for me, not nearly as interesting.
According to Rolling Stone, Backderf thought the book and movie were similar, saying the film is “a lot like the book, where you go into it expecting a certain thing and you get to the end and it’s something completely different. It’s not a slasher film – it’s a very melancholy tale full of regret and remorse that shows this young kid spiralling into madness.”
The movie starts the same as the graphic novel, with Dahmer showing some guys from school a dead animal and explaining how he’s going to dissolve it in some acid. He shows them his hut, which is full of jars of bodies dissolving in acid. When they ask him why he’s doing it, his reply is that he’s interested to see what’s inside a body. Red flag officially raised.
The movie shows Dahmer’s creepy obsession with the jogger he sees from the school bus window, but it also adds a scene where Dahmer goes to see the jogger, who is a doctor in the town they live in. The movie glosses over Dahmer’s roadkill hobby, while in the book we learn that he was taking carcasses into the woods and stripping their flesh off the bones by hand.
In both versions, Dahmer lures a dog into the woods with the intention of killing it, but then he lets it go. What makes it scary in the book is Backderf’s words: “It was also the last time he would show mercy.”
His younger brother Dave is only in the novel briefly because he was just a kid so Backderf didn’t really pay attention to him. His mom, Joyce, is described as “odd, very moody and fragile” in the book. In the movie, she seemed a bit more hostile.
This won’t come as a shock to you, but the thing about Dahmer is that, in both versions, he is thoroughly unlikeable. His claim to fame in school and the only reason he was able to make friends was that he made fun of physical disabilities to make people laugh. But in the book, you do feel a bit sorry for him, because it’s pointed out that if only one adult in his life had stepped up to offer help, maybe things wouldn’t have turned out the way they did. But adults seemed to be missing from his life, and I guess we’ll never know if that made a difference or not.
In the novel, Backderf says “..what struck me most about Dahmer was that stony mask of a face, devoid of any emotion.” The actor who plays Jeffrey Dahmer in the film is Ross Lynch and he does such an amazing job. According to IMDb, after spending many hours shooting the film, Ross would have to take a long shower to rid himself of the role. Can’t say I blame him.
While I liked the movie version, I’d have to say that reading My Friend Dahmer is a much more memorable experience. I actually read it a second time to help me write this post and I ended up liking it even more. The details Backderf chose to include and the pacing of his writing and visuals are perfect. But either way, Backderf’s story will probably linger in your mind longer than you want it to.