People always say it's better to read the book before seeing the movie.
If so, freshmen were in luck Thursday night, as Duke community members were treated to a sneak preview of The Emperor's Club, a new film based on Ethan Canin's short story "The Palace Thief."
The story served as the centerpiece of the University's first freshman summer reading assignment this year.
Following the film, Canin spoke with the audience, telling humorous anecdotes and offering insights about becoming an author, battling with the filmmakers over the nuances of his story and making a cameo appearance in the film.
Freshmen gave enthusiastic thumbs-ups to both the film and the question-and-answer session that followed.
"I really enjoyed the movie," freshman Scott Leslie said. "And [Canin] was very generous and sincere. He was so honest."
The film stars Kevin Kline as William Hundert, a teacher at an all-boys private school who toils with his own integrity as he prepares his students for a Greek and Roman history competition.
Canin explained that although he did not attend a private school, the inspiration for Hundert was one of his own teachers.
"I had a fabulous teacher as a kid who was a tyrant. He taught Greek and Roman history to us. We learned so much," Canin explained. He added that almost a decade ago, he ran into the teacher on the street, and found that he had become homeless and an alcoholic.
"I went home to write ["The Palace Thief"] as a tribute to him," Canin said.
Students and Canin pointed out the differences between the short story and the film--preferring some changes more than others. All noted, however, that the central theme of integrity was consistent in both works and that the overall lessons were appropriately open to interpretation.
"I don't believe in a standard morality; I believe in kindness," Canin said. "Integrity to me is not necessarily to be honest, but to be true to yourself."
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The short story was intended as an introduction for members of the Class of 2006 to the University's honor code and academic integrity expectations. After reading the short story over the summer, students discussed its lessons in small groups during their first week on campus.
"[The screening] was a nice culmination of the whole orientation process," freshman Ethan Fleegler said. "I thought [the movie] should have been required for the freshmen."
The film was screened once at 6 p.m. and again at 9. Canin spoke to the audience after both showings, but the crowd was considerably stronger for the second one.
Canin said he was very flattered when he learned that the University was using his short story--written more than eight years agoï¿½ï¿½for its summer reading program. He joked, however, that the University of South Carolina was also considering it for a similar project, and that he would have preferred its 25,000 students to Duke's 1,600.
"Still, this was wonderful. It's been an amazing experience," Canin said.