Before viewing (or reviewing) The Kite Runner, the big screen adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's best-selling novel, try a brief word-association test. Here's the key phrase:
What was the first thing that came to your mind? War? Opium? The Taliban? Terrorism? Perhaps, and there's no fault in that. However, if you're one of the many who've read Hosseini's book -- and kept it on The New York Times Best-Seller list for over two years -- you may have had a different set of associations: Families. Tragedies. People. And that is why Marc Forster's adaptation of The Kite Runner is worthy of at least a little praise, not only as a sensitively and beautifully made film but also as a deliberate attempt to reclaim Afghanistan -- and the Afghan people -- from an image that we in the West have crafted mostly from brief news reports of trouble or newspaper articles explaining a broken nation's shattered past.
Amir (Khalid Abdalla) is a writer; he lives with his father Baba (Homayoun Ershadi) in California, and they find some sense of belonging in the Bay Area's exile Afghan community, trying to move forward while respecting the past. Amir's written his first book -- his father wants him to take up something sensible -- and is married to Soraya (Aossa Leoni). And then there's a phone call. It's an old friend of the family, Rahim (Shaun Toub); he wants, he needs Amir to come back home. Amir left when he was a boy, during the Soviet invasion; his life is in America now. But Rahim explains why Amir has to come home, and finally convinces Amir with one simple phrase: "There is a way to be good again." Flashing back, we see Amir's boyhood in Afghanistan: His father is a hard-working member of the secular upper-class; his best friend is Hassan (Amad Khan Mahmoodzada), the son of the house servant -- and young Amir (Zerekia Ebrahimi), motherless but not unloved, wants to be the best kite-fighter in Kabul. Meanwhile, Baba's faced with Afghanistan's challenges: "The fanatics want to save our souls, and the communists tell us we don't have any. ..." It's a glib line muttered over a drink for Baba; it's about to get a lot less funny.
David Benioff's task of adapting Hosseini's novel couldn't have been easy; director Marc Forster's choice to shoot the film in the Dari dialect not only meant most of his directions to his child actors had to be translated via a third party but also meant a greater financial risk for DreamWorks. But all of that is forgotten when Amir and Hassan work together in the kite-fights -- Amir piloting the kite so it slashes the strings of other competitors, Hassan running to claim the fallen kite. Their joy -- in friendship, in competition, in cooperation -- is immediate and touching; if only the world were like that. But while Amir and Hassan are friends -- playing, talking, seeing Farsi-dubbed screenings of The Magnificent Seven -- their relationship isn't simple, and their world is growing more complex.
Amir worries that his father loves Hassan more than him -- for some reason -- and while Amir and Hassan are friends, that can't erase the gulfs between their lives, whether it's their class divisions or Hassan's heritage as a Shiite Hazara. The day of the kite-fighting tournament, a group of bullies finds Hassan alone as he's running to capture one of the kites Amir downed -- and beat him savagely before sexually violating him. Amir witnesses the attack, but does nothing to stop it; whether that's because he's outnumbered and outmatched or because he wants to see Hassan hurt is another matter. In time Amir can't live with what he's done, even as the tides of history are about to sweep his concerns away like toy boats in a gale.
Now the adult Amir has a chance to put some of the past behind him -- even though that will mean entering Afghanistan at the height of the Taliban's rule. Amir sees the ruined shell of his childhood home, witnesses the execution of adulterers and other sinners by stoning -- at a soccer game, public executions as public entertainment. And then Amir has to risk his own life to try and save another.
Hosseini, Benioff and Forster each manage to bring the large- and small-scale atrocities and injustices of Afghan history and the character's pasts alive without sanitizing them or wallowing in them. If one thing holds The Kite Runner back, it's the simple fact that while writers make great protagonists in literature, they often fizzle on film; all the qualities a writer should have --observation, exile, distance, cunning -- can come across as passive and slack when blown up onto the big screen. When Amir finally acts instead of reacts, finally takes a stand instead of standing by, it's a welcome relief -- and, perhaps, it comes too late in the film.
But Forster's direction is first-rate; he can capture the swooping kite-battles in the skies above Kabul, then come down to earth with the easy interplay between Amir and Hassan. As he proved in Finding Neverland, Forster can get real performances out of child actors, and Mahmoodzada and Ebrahami both do excellent work. And it may cost them; Paramount Vantage pushed the release date of The Kite Runner back until the school year was over and the child actors could be removed from Afghanistan, for fear of backlash. As insane as it is to suggest that some people would consider acting in a film about the rape of a child a transgression worthy of punishment, far more irrational things have happened in Afghanistan; this is an act of mercy on the part of Paramount Vantage, not a publicity stunt.
The Kite Runner takes a culture we've mostly experienced through caricature and demonstrates it to us through characters -- and that may not sound riveting, but it is rewarding. At the same time, Hosseni's book and Benioff's script don't try to paint every character as a plaster saint; some of the Afghan characters are good, and some are bad, and even the good ones do bad things -- which is to say that they're human. And the film doesn't shy away from showing us the racial and religious divides that plagued Afghanistan long before the Soviet invasion or the rise of the Taliban, or the very different customs of the Afghan people; I know I felt a little odd watching a Hollywood film where the romantic sub-plot revolved around the negotiation and completion of what might as well be an arranged marriage. And a climactic revelation might seem a little too pat and simple, but it also resonates with power and pathos.
Finally, and cruelly, audiences may choose one 'growing up before the troubles' film about the East over another, and elect to see the wildly-praised Persepolis (which deserves those accolades) instead of the less showy, more naturalistic The Kite Runner. Forster had to walk several fine lines in making The Kite Runner -- between East and West, between childhood joy and adult responsibility, between respecting Hosseini's book and still getting it on the screen, between the natural performances of his actors and the special effects required to bring the kite-fight and other, uglier wars to life. But a kite balances a fine line, too -- between the wind and gravity, the tug of the string and the pull of the sky. The Kite Runner doesn't just make us watch the battling kites in the skies over Kabul; it makes us truly see the people below, in many ways for the first time; that's the film's greatest achievement, and ultimately the best reason to see it.