Kite Runner, The

Marc Forsters eagerly awaited The Kite Runner,” based on the 2003 popular novel by Khaled Hoseini, is a touching morality tale of fathers and sons, friendship and betrayal, set against the backdrop of Afghanistans tumultuous politics, past and present.

Spanning three decades, from the monarchys final days to the atrocities of the present, and set in two continents, the film is at once an historical epic and an intimate saga about guilt and redemption, how the past continues to exert its haunting impact on the present, but also the possibility of having second, healing chapters in our lives that help make the past more tolerable.

The fans of the book, which was on the New York Times best-selling list for 103 weeks and sold north of 4 million copies in the U.S. alone, should be satisfied with the film version, which represents an incredibly faithful adaptation. Scribe David Benioff (Troy,” “Stay,” “The 25th Hour) has gone out of his way to remain truthful to the books text and tone, often taking whole sections of dialogue right out of the printed page. Occasionally, the movie even improves on the book, which, with all due respect to Hoseini, is a first work, and as such places stronger emphasis on contents than style, plot over form. (More about it later).

Like the book, Kite Runner the movie walks a fine line between being sentimental and emotional, and its a credit to helmer Marc Forsters intelligence, taste and discretion that he navigates this path quite successfullyalmost to the end. If sequences of the film feel conventional and middlebrow, it's also due to their existence in the source material.

Perhaps Forsters shrewdest decision was to turn the unforgettable, heartbreaking story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father's servant, into a beautifully crafted fable, set in a country thats being destroyed as a result of endless and merciless invasions by Communist rule, Soviet occupation, the Mujahideen, and a democracy that became a regime of Taliban terror. Its only when the film opts for grittier realism, as in the last chapter, that it loses some momentum and magic, replicating the same problems of credibility that the book suffers from. (We are more tolerant toward such flaws when we read words than when watch visual images).

The movie is divided into three parts, which are unequal in lengthand emotional impact. The first, and most effective, is the detailed yarn of the friendship between two children who belong to different castes. This section benefits from Forsters penchant for magical lyricism mingled with particular historical backdrops, as was evident in his Oscar-nominated Peter Pan fable.
(I dont want to read too much into it, but it may not be a coincidence that both films use as their recurrent motif and metaphor flying, a boy in Peter Pan and kites in the new picture).

Chronologically, the saga begins in San Francisco, in 2000, with a couple and a young boy in a park flying a kite. Upon return home, Amir (Khalid Abdalla) finds a box that contains his first published book, which his wife Soraya (Atossa Leoni) refers to as your baby, a casual remark that becomes more significant at the end, when the tale returns to that beginning. Amir then gets a phone call from his fathers business partner that summons him to Pakistan for some unfinished family business, forcing him to forego a book tour.

The movie then flashes back to 1978 Kabul, and the story of two boys, which is the most compelling of the three parts and the longest, occupying about 50 minutes of the two-hour narrative.

Amir (Zekiria Ebrahimi) is the son of Baba (Homayoun Ershadi), a Pashtun whos a force of nature, strong and domineering but also decent and generous in his philanthropical activities for the community. Amir wants desperately to gain the respect of his father, who early on observes, something is missing in his son to make him a real man. Babas household has servants, the polio-afflicted Ali (Nabi Tanha) and his cleft-lipped son Hassan (Ahmad Khan), Hazaras who are tortured and ostracized by the region's older bullies, persecuted because of their lower status.

But Ali and Baba and Amir and Hassan are more than servant and master. Living together, they show mutual respect, while recognizing their class differences. The boys grew up together, establishing a bond thats more binding than blood ties. Hassan's mother ran away after his birth, and Amir's mother died at childbirth, thus making him guilty for the rest of his life. Nursed by the same woman, the boys learn how to crawl, play, read stories, and run kites side by side.

The kite flying contests occur every year in their neighborhood, and the crucial one, which forms the films moral center, is when Amir is thirteen. With unabashed admiration and unconditional love, Hassan stands up for Amir consistently. But on the day of the kite-flying contest, Amir fails Hassan in a way that would forever haunt him. Amir observes from a distance how Hassan is captured, tortured, and raped by the bullies. Lasting a few seconds, the torture and rape scene, which has become controversial, causing delays in the films release, is much more graphically depicted in the book.

Instead of interfering, Amir runs away. From that point on, Amir is cruel and even merciless toward Hassan, despite valuing his friendship and loving him in his own way but unable to express it. Amir goes to the extremes of implicating Hassan for a theft he didnt commit, and becomes responsible for his departure with his father Ali from the household; left in the dark, Baba is perplexed, disturbed and devastated by their leave.

The second, more anthropological, part takes us to Fremont California and 1988, to the graduation ceremony of Amir from a community college, attended by his proud father. Kite Runner was touted as the first Afghan novel written in English, which may or may not be true. However, much more significant is Housseini being the first Afghan novelist to popularize his culture for Western readership with such loving care and respect.

I cant recall another recent movie (perhaps The House of Sand and Fog, about Iranian immigrants, and before that Mira Nair's Mississippi Massala about Indians in the South) that has chronicled with such attention to detail the manners and mores of Afghans as an immigrants community in the U.S., showing their lives through Amirs courtship and marriage of an Afghan girl, a proud father who refuses to be treated by a doctor because he's from the Soviet Union, family dinners, dressing and cultural habits, personal and public respect through Soraya's father, the pompous General Taher (Abdul Quadir Farooki), and so on.

Going back to the beginning, the films third part chronicles Amirs trip to Pakistan and then to Afghanistan to rescue Sohrab (Ali Danesh Bakhtyari), the son of Hassan, who had been kicked out of his house and brutally killed by the Taliban.

A powerful scene set at an orphanage illustrates the heavy price paid by Afghans, when children are bought and sold as valuable market properties, and the good Afghans, who sacrifice their lives to keep the orphans clean and fed.

You cant fault the strained authenticity of these and the ensuing sections about Amir masquerading as a Taliban, his rescue mission of Hassans boy Sohrab, and their joint escape, which unfold as conventional scenes in Hollywood actioners, because they are all in the book.

Forsters soulful morality tale melds the personal struggle of ordinary people into the terrible historical sweep of a devastated country. Kite Runner is both a particular and a universal saga thats rich in meanings and diverse in subtexts. Thematically, its about the power (both destructive and positive) of fathers over sons through their domineering love, sacrifices, and lies, and the need of the sons to stand up for themselves and become their own men.

Baba is the kind of man whos brave enough to risk being shot by a Soviet soldier while defending a woman from being raped, claiming wars shouldnt negate a sense of decency. Its a lesson that his son Amir will have to learn the hard way in his own life. Its a testament to the writing, directing, and acting that Amir is a flawed youngster, lacking the courage of his father, and yet he remains likable and sympathetic throughout the yarn.

But the film is also about the power of reading and storytelling, the price of betrayal, and the possibility of redemption. One of the films mottos is Theres a way to be good, again, which is periodically repeated. And this doesnt negate the popular Afghan saying: “Life goes on, unmindful of beginning and end, crisis or catharsis, moving forward like a slow, dusty caravan of kochis (nomads).”

The movie, like the novel, is symmetrical and ultimately inspirational. It begins with Amir's memory of peering down an alley, looking for Hassan whos kite-running for him, and it ends with Amir's kite-running for Hassan's son Sohrab, as he begins a new life with Amir in the U.S.

Always engaging, the story is relevant to the current social and geopolitical climate in the post 9/11 era. Truly touching, with only occasional slips into sheer sentimentality and melodrama (there are outrageous family secrets), the narrative integrates political events from the 1970s to 2001 in a way that illustrates their impact on ordinary Afghans struggling to make decent life despite terrible, adverse realities.

Despite stretching credulity and problems of plausibility, in its good moments, which are plentiful, Kite Runner offers the cinematic equivalent of satisfying narrative pleasures. As an American film, Kite Runner” is also distinguished in bridging the personal and political domains in a credible mode, melding global politics with the personal survival of innocent people caught up in incomprehensible upheavals and the destruction of their beloved country, once defined by trees (chopped by the Soviets), oranges, honey, pomegranates–and love for American movies. As children, Amir and Hassan frequent Hollywood pictures like The Magnificent Seven, knowing each line of dialogue by heart. And watch their joyful reaction–“like Steve McQueen”–when Baba buys a big, cool car and drives the boys around.

Throughout, the movie conveys vividly the feeling of what its like to be an Afghan and to see one's beautiful country destroyed. Ultimately, Kite Runner is about the eternal human need for grace and peace, both personal (peace of mind) and collective, and the long journeys (often taking a lifetime) and heavy price to achieve them.

End Note

The author Khaled Hoseini is an Afghan who has lived in America since his family received political asylum in 1980. A practicing doctor, he began his writing career with the highly acclaimed The Kite Runner, which has been followed by a second novel.

“The Kite Runner” world-premiered at the Chicago and Mill Valley Film Festivals, and will be released theatrically by Paramount Classics on December 14.

Credits

A Paramount Classics release of a DreamWorks Pictures, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, Participant Prods. presentation, of a Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, Parkes/MacDonald production.
Produced by William Horberg, Walter F. Parkes, Rebecca Yeldham, E. Bennett Walsh.
Executive producers, Kimmel, Laurie MacDonald, Sam Mendes, Jeff Skoll.
Co-executive producer, Bruce Toll.
Directed by Marc Forster.
Screenplay, David Benioff, based on the novel by Khaled Hosseini.
Camera: Roberto Schaefer.
Editor: Matt Chesse.
Music: Alberto Iglesias.
Production designer: Carlos Conti.
Art director: Karen Murphy.
Set decorators: Caroline Smith, Maria Nay.
Costume designer: Bruce Toll.
Sound: Chris Munro.
Kite master: Basir Beria.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 121 Minutes.

The dialogue is in Dari, Pashtu, Urdu, Russian, and English.

Cast

Amir – Khalid Abdalla
Baba – Homayoun Ershadi
Young Amir – Zekiria Ebrahimi
Young Hassan – Ahmad Khan
Mahmoodzada
Rahim Khan – Shaun Toub
Ali – Nabi Tanha
Sohrab – Ali Danesh Bakhtyari
Farid – Said Taghmaoui
Soraya – Atossa Leoni
General Taher – Abdul Qadir Farookh
Jamila – Maimoona Ghizal
Assef – Abdul Salam Yusoufzai
Young Assef – Elham Ehsas