It's just one little test, isn't it?

'The Emperor's Club' has been positioned as a kind of Dead Ethics Society.

By , Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Eight years ago, when author Ethan Canin wrote "The Palace Thief," there were no Enrons or Global Crossings on his mind, and they certainly weren't in the national headlines.

But that book, about a professor's ethical dilemma in the face of both public and private wrongdoing, has now become the film "The Emperor's Club."

It opens next week in a vastly different time, one in which Congress and the nation have spent countless hours wrestling with the ethical lapses of its political and corporate leaders.

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"When I wrote that book, it was an anachronism," says the author, referring to the central character, a teacher of ancient history. "But it's turned out to be a zeitgeist film," he says, one that addresses the central concerns of our time. "Maybe," he adds with a laugh, "that's the strength of the classics."

At first blush, the film appears to be about the power of a great teacher to inspire students.

While that emphasis remains, the more important theme of the film investigates how people cope in the wake of a serious mistake.

This may not be what audiences expect of a film that is being marketed as a cross between "Dead Poets Society" and "Goodbye, Mr. Chips."

"When the narrator says, 'This is a story without surprises,' most of the time this is not what happens," says Canin, who teaches at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. "People are surprised when Hollywood characters act the way a real person would."

Screenwriter Neil Tolkin says the subtle ethical quandaries of the story are what appealed to him. It helps that audiences come in equipped with images of the "inspiring teacher," as depicted by Hollywood. "I'm grateful for films such as 'Dead Poets' and 'Chips,' " Tolkin says. "Those films set this whole world up for us and then we get to pull the rug on their expectations."

Kevin Kline portrays the professor whose life has been dedicated to instilling in his students the lessons of ancient scholars.

But, in the end, Mr. Kline says, the teacher learns that asking the right question may be more important than knowing all the answers.

Actor Rob Morrow, who portrays a back-stabbing colleague, says it doesn't surprise him that the film addresses compelling issues of the day.

Important issues are always just under the surface, working themselves out, he says, and popular art forms become a forum for working out society's concerns.

"It makes sense," he says. "All of the excesses of the previous years, we'd all just gone too far. We had to start coming back to some sort of balance."

Canin does not begin writing with the book's end in mind. He just begins to write and lets the story take him where it may. Author E.L. Doctorow serves as an inspiration, he says.

"Doctorow once said that writing is like driving at night with your headlights on. You can only go where you can see, but it will take you the whole way."

Not surprisingly, the producers are pleased that the film touches on current ethical issues, but are willing to admit that even if they'd like to they couldn't have planned it this way.

"I'd like to say I was that prescient or smart, but that's not the way it works," says producer Marc Abraham, with a laugh.

But, he adds, the issue of ethics and right and wrong never really go away, as all the great writers have always known. Like Arthur Miller, who wrote "The Crucible" as a cautionary tale about the excesses of his day, Abraham says, "in many ways, Ethan is writing his own parable for our time."

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