It was only a matter of time before Afghan writer Khaled Hosseini’s first novel was made into a film. The Oprah-touted, book club-beloved 2004 Kite Runner benefited from excellent timing, being released so relatively soon after the fall of the Taliban, and presenting story elements that most Americans were quick to appreciate and push, like the stark evil of the Taliban, America as land of opportunity and positive role model for Afghan people, and plenty of background on the day-to-day life of the country we still know so little about.
That it has so quickly become an awards-baiting film is perhaps just one more example of Hosseini’s luck with timing. His second book was just released this year, and we could probably use a nice big reminder that Afghanistan is full of real people facing some serious shit right about now, given the increasingly bad news coming from that front of the Global War on Terror, which, since 2003, seems like it’s merely been our other war instead of, you know, a priority of any kind.
Hosseini gets a writing credit on the film, though the screenplay is the work of David Benioff, who previously adapted The 25th Hour and the Illiad (turning it into the 2004 Brad Pitt vehicle Troy), and is responsible for the so-bad-it-must-be-seen-to-be-believed 2005 psychological thriller Stay. I haven’t read The Kite Runner myself, so I’m not sure how faithful it is to the book, but it seems like he kept in the most controversial element—the rape scenes that caused trouble for the boy actors and their families back in Afghanistan. The film is structured in a rather cliched form for a movie of this type, however.
In 2000, San Francisco-based writer Amir (Khalid Abdalla of United 93) is thoughtfully watching some kids play with kites, and returns home to find a box full of his comp copies of his first novel, The Kite Run— er, A Season For Ashes. At that precise moment, he receives a call from the old country, telling him he needs to visit immediately.
Thus begins a flashback that lasts a full half of the movie, in which we journey to the streets of Kabul in the late ‘70s, and meet the author as a young boy and his best friend (and family’s servant) Hassan. In those days before the Russian invasion, Afghanistan seems somewhat idyllic, as the boys pal around the colorful markets competitively flying kites and watching translated American movies (Hassan wants to go to Iran to meet Charles Bronson one day; Bronson must be Iranian, he figures, since in the films he speaks Farsi with an Iranian accent). Amir reads stories to the illiterate Hassan; Hassan protects Amir from bullies.
A traumatic event breaks the back of their friendship, however, and when the Soviet Union finally invades, Amir and his father eventually flee to the United States, whereas Hassan stays behind. The grown-up Amir must return in the film’s climax, however, and wander through the now desolate and destroyed Taliban-ruled country, complete with beard patrols and the stadium stoning of adulterers.
The melodrama of the material is so potent that it hardly matters how well executed the film actually is, although director Marc Forster (Stranger Than Fiction, Monster’s Ball) does a better than decent job. He coaxes strong performances out of his child actors, and his relatively inexperienced adult actors all give career making performances here, most particularly handsome Abdalla as the somewhat silent and tortured Amir and Homayoun Ershadi as his father.
As dramatized history, Kite Runner is pretty extraordinary in bringing to life the Kabul of a generation ago and contrasting it with the one that exists in the 21st century (in our minds, if not in fact), and addresses Afghan culture and customs in the sort of immersive way that treads the delicate line between film stereotypes as shorthand and actual cross-cultural conversation.
It never seems quite so alive as during the kite battles, however, in which teams of little boys engage in dogfights with one another’s kites, seeking to cut them free from the strings.
It’s a perhaps too obvious symbol of the fate of the country—kite-flying being one of the many ridiculous things outlawed by the Taliban that we in the West find so amusing—but Foster stages these sequences quite thrillingly. Coupled with the operatic story and the straight-faced performances by an appealing cast of mostly newcomers, it’s enough to make up for any and all of the weaknesses, which fall mostly into the emotionally manipulative category.