'The Kite Runner': A Soaring Tale of Hardship & Hope

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 14, 2007

When it was published in 2003, "The Kite Runner" could not have been better timed, bringing the life and culture of Afghanistan to an America largely wary of the country with which it had gone to war just two years before. Now, Khaled Hosseini's best-selling novel and favorite of book clubs everywhere has been given the screen adaptation it richly deserves in Marc Forster's film of the same name.

Fans of Hosseini's spare but densely detailed book will most likely cheer the fealty and sensitivity Forster has shown toward the original text, which deeply affected millions of readers with its tale of friendship, family, loyalty and betrayal. Gorgeously filmed in Northern California and China (which stands in for Afghanistan), cast near-perfectly to coincide with the novel's vividly drawn characters, "The Kite Runner" -- like the book itself -- keeps things simple and elegant. While not the bravura cinematic turn that is this season's other high-toned literary adaptation, "Atonement," Forster's "Kite Runner" is just right precisely because it isn't showy. This is a movie that knows better than to overreach.

Which is not to say that "The Kite Runner" isn't dazzling cinema. Filmed with crystalline clarity by Roberto Schaefer, the film is a bold, often soaring treat for the eye, as viewers are introduced to an Afghanistan they may never have met before. After a brief opening sequence in modern-day California, the film jumps back in time to 1970s Kabul, when the country was in the throes of a communist revolution and an impending Soviet invasion. Twelve-year-old Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) lives with the prosperous widowed father he calls Baba (Homayoun Ershadi) in a beautiful house on the city's outskirts. Amir's best friend is Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada), the family servant's son, who is from the stigmatized Hazari tribe. As the boys do what boys do in Kabul -- go to the movies, get into mischief, fly brightly colored kites -- they are routinely bullied by kids of the privileged Pashtun sect to which Amir belongs.

It's after one of Kabul's cherished "kite fighting" tournaments that Hassan runs afoul of some of those bullies, who proceed to rape him with bestial brutality. All the while, Amir looks on without interceding, and the ensuing shame will haunt him the rest of his life, from his escape with his father from Soviet forces to California, where they settle into emigre downward mobility similar to that depicted in the 2003 drama "House of Sand and Fog." Several years after they leave Afghanistan, Amir, now a successful novelist in his late 30s, receives a phone call offering a way for him to put things right.

It's a sweeping, even epic story, spanning generations, continents and myriad political upheavals, but Forster ("Monster's Ball," "Finding Neverland," "Stranger Than Fiction") brings superb control to the enterprise, never stooping to awkward exposition but letting Afghanistan's tortured history play out as an oblique but crucial background to the characters' own fraught dynamics. ("The mullahs want to rule our souls, the communists tell us we don't have any," Baba says at one point. "More important, 'El Cid' is playing.")

The focus in "The Kite Runner" is on its two different but fatally linked protagonists, whose relationship so often seems to echo the cycle of misery Afghanistan has suffered. Forster's biggest challenge, at least in the eyes of many readers, was to find just the right actors to bring to life characters who, by the end of the book, were every bit as authentic as real-life friends and family. He has succeeded: Ebrahimi and Mahmidzada will no doubt ring perfectly true as the ambivalent master and the martyred, supremely devoted servant. Mahmidzada is particularly indelible -- and heartbreaking -- as Hassan, a figure of unconditional love and noble suffering.

When events shift to the present day, Amir is played by the enormously appealing Khalid Abdalla, who infuses an otherwise unsympathetic character with warmth and empathy. Like the book, "The Kite Runner" succumbs to some contrivance in its third act, when Amir's difficult relationship with his overbearing father, whose emotional distance set so many of these events in motion, comes melodramatically into play. But by then the audience is too invested in these characters to care.

One of those characters, as it happens, is Afghanistan itself, and after seeing "The Kite Runner" viewers will most likely have a richer mental picture of a country that in recent years has been reduced to physical and cultural rubble. In early sequences, Kabul is a place of lively, cosmopolitan exuberance, teeming with life and jewel-hued textures. Even the bleak countryside comes to resemble not a dun-colored wasteland but a place of rough, ancient beauty.

That all changes, of course, with the Soviet invasion and, later, the tyranny of the Taliban, whose depraved rule is personified by a mullah wearing aviator shades, stoning a woman to death during halftime at a sports arena. This is just one of several scenes in "The Kite Runner" that are excruciating to watch, as viewers find themselves longing for someone to do the right thing, whether personally, politically or theologically. (Both in the early scene of Hassan's assault and in these later passages, "The Kite Runner" makes a persuasive case that some deep-rooted sense of sexual anxiety animates chauvinism, whether it's tribal, religious or racial.)

For all the pain, loss and displacement that "The Kite Runner" depicts, it is still a film of exhilarating, redemptive humanity, conveying an enduring sense of hope rather than bleak despair. Like the dancing, darting kites of its title -- which can either be weapons or objects of avian grace -- the ultimate image is that of a people, and a country, who can soar despite being tethered to an impossibly burdensome history.

The Kite Runner (122 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for adult themes, including the sexual assault of a child, violence and brief strong profanity.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company