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The Emperor's Club (2002)
There must be an amphibian quality in the
emotional texture of a book that adapts to the big screen in a seamless transition.
Whether it's the tears of Scarlett O Hara projected from Margaret Mitchells
imagination to Vivian Leigh's memorable acting, or the special effects and lovable
characters that turned the Wizard of Oz into a perennial favorite, at the basis of these transformations are the
connecting bridges of love, emotion and passion. Some book themes seem easier to move to
the big screen: illicit love, tragedy, revenge. Some books, though, seem to resist
adaptation to film. Failure can mean the movie
is, at best, a watered-down version of the novel, or, at worst, a travesty of it.
The Emperors Club belongs to the watered-down division. Based on a story by Ethan Canin, the film starts out with some hiccups even before the credits roll out. For starters, the source is not a full length novel but a literary short story, and it's a stretch to make it the substance of a full length film. This is not to say short story adaptations cannot succeed. Two prominent examples are The Blade Runner and Minority Report, both based on short stories by Phillip K. Dick. But these are classic science fiction stories which allow both heavy doses of atmospheric mise en scene and extended action sequences, adding a filmic layer to the literary source. The Emperor's Club director, Michael Hoffman (A Midsummer Nights Dream, One Fine Day), has to work overtime trying to justify his film's grandiose title, changed from the original, The Palace Thief.
Kevin Kline (The Anniversary Party, Life as a House) has the chiseled looks of a studious Roman, which helps him in his role as Arthur Hundert, a classics professor at St. Benedict's, a prep school for rich kids. Always dressed in a dark suit, the hair at his temples shows just the slightest shade of gray. Fond of dramatizing the classics, Hundert asks a hapless student at the beginning of every term to go to the back of the class and read out from a tablet hung on the door. The tablet describes the exploits of Shutruk-Nahhunte, a once famous egomaniacal conqueror and sovereign of the land of Elam, virtually unknown today. The point, Hundert explains in his ponderous manner, is to show that a leader is not remembered for his conquests or ambitions but for his lasting contributions to the good of humankind.
There is, even in these early moments, a departure from the Ethan Canin story where Hundert gives the same example, but his point is more ambitious: to show how conquests, however grand, would be forgotten in the intervening centuries. The distinction is subtle, but important. Hundert in Canins version wants to teach humility; Hundert in the film only wants to give his students a glib lesson in purposive action. The films pusillanimity in meeting head on some of the issues discussed in Canins story reduces its interest and subverts the point of making it into a movie. The Emperors Club is a film with its heart in the art-house but its head (and purse-strings) in Hollywood. The result is a story that is held together by the glue of big studio formula but loses the complexity and interest of moral ambiguity in story line.
In pivotal moments of the movie, Hundert confronts one of his most incorrigibly mischievous students, Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys). The viper-toothed Bell is the son of a patrician senator and considers himself above the rules of the school. Hundert is confounded with his arrogance, but gradually comes to the conclusion that though the boy has academic prowess, he is just not motivated enough to excel at school. The classics professor prods the boy ahead, but Bells path is strewn with obstacles including a rather ludicrous classics competition where the participants self-consciously dress in designer togas.
The mentorship soon runs into problems and so does the film. The relationship between master and student is multi-layered in Ethan Canins story, with the student teaching the master a few things about life, as much as the master tries to instill morality in the student. But in The Emperors Club, interesting ambiguities are reduced to moral platitudes, with Hundert preaching the commandments to young Sedgewick. On the plus side, both Kline and Hirsch, charming and arrogant in varying proportions, fit their roles nicely, and are complemented by a competent though self-conscious supporting cast of young students.
- Nigam Nuggehalli