At first glance, the screenwriter who gave the world Troy wouldn't seem like the natural choice to adapt a literary novel of childhood joy and adult challenges. But David Benioff isn't just the writer behind brawny action films like Troy and the upcoming Wolverine: Origins; he's also a novelist, who adapted his own book for Spike Lee's brilliant, overlooked 25th Hour. After screening The Kite Runner at the closing night of the Mill Valley Film Festival, Benioff spoke with a roundtable of journalists in San Francisco about collaborating with novelist Khaled Hosseini, the challenge posed by certain cultural differences and the combination of brute force and finesse required to fit an epic novel onto film. Cinematical's questions are indicated.
I guess I'll start with the obvious question, which is: Given that this is a film about a culture completely different from our own, how instrumental was it having (author Khaled Hosseini) on-hand to support you?
David Benioff: It was a great help, and I think I got really lucky, because I've had friends working on adaptations where the relationship between the screenwriter and the novelist is ... tense. And sometimes you have a writer who writes a book and sells the film rights and says "Thank you for the money ..." and just doesn't want to be involved -- and sometimes they want to be so involved -- I can think of examples, like the Sahara guy. (Clive Cussler).
But in this case, Khaled (Hosseini) was both very supportive, but very understanding that the movie was going to be very separate from the book. And he was a great resource; I mean, I could do as much research as I wanted and read books about Afghan history and so on, but I'm not from there, I'm not a Muslim, I didn't grow up in Kabul ... and to be able to call Khaled or e-mail him -- it was mostly a lot of late night e-mails -- and then to wake up in the morning and to have a response from him, a very detailed response from him, explaining what the movie theaters were like in Kabul in the '70s, or what the protocol would have been in a certain situation ... it was a great resource. It was incredibly helpful, and I think it made the script much better than it would have been otherwise.
Cinematical: Obviously, you have a very good relationship with Mr. Hosseini -- and this is not asking you to speak ill of the book -- but what in the book made you roll your eyes, thinking "God, I don't know how you bring this to the screen?"
DB: I don't know if there's a moment, particularly, or just the length of certain sections. For me, when I was reading the book, I was completely captivated by the childhood scenes in Kabul and then felt maybe a slight loss of momentum in the American scenes. You know, many of the (American) scenes I actually love -- and many of them are in the movie -- but I felt like I had to compress that. There's no way to keep as much of the early childhood stuff as we did keep from the book and keep as much of the American things without the movie veering into (a length of) three hours and 30 minutes.
So for me, it was really compressing the American scenes in the center section there, and a lot of compression at the end; at the end of the book, after the climactic fight with the Assef in the Taliban compound and they flee into Pakistan -- then a whole other plot starts, where they're trying to deal with immigration, and dealing with an INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) official, and that was never in the script. It was really a decision partly because of time, and partly because I felt like once we had the climax, having another 45 minutes of story time post-climax ... I felt like I would be wriggling in my seat. It just felt like, structurally, it would be a mistake.
What did you have to know about kites, for the film?
DB: I've never flown a kite. (Laughs) But, you know, those scenes in the script are quite close to the scenes in the book, in terms of describing what's going on. I think I might have tried to fly a kite, one time -- and it never really got airborne, so ... nothing.
How much of your input went into using the native Dari dialect? Is that in the book?
DB: Well, in the book, it's really implied they're speaking Dari; the entire book's in English. And I give full credit to Marc, the director for making that (the decision to have the dialogue in Dari) happen, because from early conversations -- and I was working on this before Marc came on -- it never made sense to me that the movie could be entirely in English. Aside from the authenticity factor, which is a big factor, but aside from that, it's not the kind of movie like Schindler's List where you assume they're all speaking one language, and you can kind of have that willing suspension of disbelief and say "Well, it's been translated by the magic of cinema ..." or whatever, into English. In this case, you're going to have characters in Afghanistan speaking English on-screen, and we're supposed to imagine they're speaking Dari, and then when they come to America, they're speaking English -- and, in the case of Baba's character, speaking broken English. So you're going to watch an actor speaking fluent English in one country and then broken English in America -- it just seemed incredibly awkward.
And it seems little dated at this point in time to have a film set in another country where everyone speaks English; the only reason it's been done is because Hollywood and the movies, traditionally ... these kinds of movies have been made in America for American audiences. And I don't think we can get away with it as much anymore, and to me it's already starting to seem a little bit dated when you see movies like that. It always seemed the right way to go.
That said, I never believed we had a chance to do it in Dari; it never seemed possible, and the studio was not excited about the ideal; they stood to lose a lot of money. Not just because American audiences tend to be very skeptical about movies with subtitles, but also because they have a television deal which allows them to sell every DreamWorks movie to one of the networks for 8 million dollars or something -- but there's a contract stipulation that says if the movie is primarily in a foreign language, the network is not under obligation to buy the film. So right off the bat, by making that decision, they would lose 8 million dollars. And there was no way it was going to happen. And then Marc came on and said "I want to do this movie, but only if we do it in Dari." And he pushed it through, and I think it was the best possible decision; at this point, watching it now, I can't picture the whole thing in English. I think it would be a vastly inferior movie.
Cinematical: There's a certain degree of cultural similarities in the movie -- whether it's father-son bonds, or the pleasures of The Magnificent Seven; there's a lot of big cultural differences, everything from long-simmering tensions between ethnic groups to arranged marriages; which cultural difference was it toughest for you to wrap your head around as product of American civilization?
DB: Probably (Amir's) arranged marriage with Soraya; I made a number of mistakes in early drafts, and this is an example of where Khaled Hosseini was extremely helpful. Because I think I had Amir touching Soraya at one point, or she touched him -- and not in a sexy way, just contact -- and he said 'No, this would not happen ...'; he really went through those scenes and explained what the actual protocol would be, and that was really helpful. Or even things that Amir, in early drafts, said; when she tells him about the incident in Virginia, where she ran off with her boyfriend, and her father had to come get her. Amir's response to that ... She says, "Does it bother you?" I think the initial dialogue I wrote -- I don't remember the exact line -- but it was something like "No, not really." And Khaled said "But it would bother him, actually ..."
Coming from this society and coming from their cultural backgrounds; no matter how liberal you might be within the culture, and everything else, it's actually a serious deal, and I had to rethink it -- and it was lucky we had (Hosseini) there helping out, because it would have been wrong. It was one of those instances where it would have been objectively wrong if I had it the way I originally had it, and luckily he spotted that error early on.
It's a rare opportunity to talk to the individual who makes a screen adaptation; can you basically outline what your formula is? You get this book -- how do you turn it into a script?
DB: I read the book before I knew I was going to have the job; I read the book, and read it kind of like anyone reading it, and thinking a little bit about a screenplay -- but not much, mostly just reading it to enjoy it, to live with it. And I loved it. And then I got the job, and I read it a second time, and then I was terrified, because I was like "Now I have this job, and, wow, this is going to be really hard." Mainly because it's such a big story, and there's always some point when I'm doing a job when I'm like "This was a huge mistake; I don't know what .. I'm so f***ed." And just trying to make that story work in two hours didn't seem possible at first. And in truth, the early drafts were 165 pages, and it was running incredibly long.
The lucky thing about working on something like this is -- Marc's next movie is the next James Bond movie, and they're already in pre-production; they don't even have a script. The way they work on that is that you start setting up, you're looking for your locations and everything while the writers are writing the scene. And it seems to work for them; the last Bond movie was really good. But I've never worked like that; and, luckily, in this case it wasn't like that. I had a lot of time; and in the end it was something like two years and fourteen drafts before they made the movie. So there was time to screw up, and there was time to make mistakes, and work on them, and sometimes draft number five is weaker than draft number four, but I think draft fourteen is significantly better than draft number one. And ultimately Marc came in, and Marc is very good at finding places to cut; he's got a real surgeon's eye for that.
For many people, when they read the book in 2003 when it came out, it was probably an eye-opener about Afghan culture; what do you expect the impact of the film will be for a Western Audience, and in Afghanistan?
DB: Well, for the Western audience -- this was true for the book, and I hope it's true for the movie as well; Khaled was saying last night at the screening -- when it comes to Afghanistan, when we see Afghanistan, it's always about fighting the Taliban, or fighting people who grow opium, or drug dealers, or warlords; that's always the story. And we see so little about the real people, the people who live there, and their lives. And I think it's important; I shared a car with Khalid Abdalla, the actor who plays Amir, just last night after the screening, and he was saying it's tough; he's such a good actor, and it's tough because all the roles that he sees for screenplays are terrorist roles. And United 93 (which featured Abdalla as hijacker Ziad Jarrah) is a great movie, but there aren't that many Paul Greengrasses; normally, you've got directors, and it's the outdated cowboys-and-Indians thing. Now the terrorists are the Indians, and they're running around with AK-47's and shouting some words in Arabic, 'Allah Akbar,' whatever it is, and even the movies that I think try to be more sensitive to it, it's always East-versus-West.
And this movie is not that; I think it's a story about these people caught up in circumstances far beyond their control, trying to survive and trying to survive with some dignity. Because I know this was my reaction to the book, and it's just incredibly eye-opening to see how these people lived in that country at that time and how they lived when they came over here, and hopefully the movie will have that effect. And as far as its effect in Afghanistan, I don't even want to predict; I mean, I don't ... hopefully it will ...I don't even want to say; I get superstitious, and I don't want to say; my fervent hope -- Insha'Allah (if God wills it), as they say in the story -- is people will see it as a story of healing, of redemption.