Film of the Book: The Kite Runner

Directed by Marc Forster (2007)

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From the book review:

Two young boys grow up side by side in Kabul in the 1970s. Though in some ways they are best friends, they are not equal. The narrator, Amir, is the son of a rich man, whom he calls Baba, and Hassan is the son of Baba’s servant, Ali. Hassan acts as Amir’s servant as well as his friend. But, more importantly in an Afghanistan divided along lines of class and religion, Amir is a Pashtun Sunni, part of the ruling class, while Hassan is a Hazara Shi’a – a group reviled and mocked. One day, during a kite-fighting competition, something will happen that will drive these friends apart, in a foreshadowing of the wars that will soon break the country apart. Many years later, as Amir returns to Kabul from his new home in America, his mission to put right some of the things left unresolved from his childhood mirrors the question of whether this broken country can ever find resolutions to its bitter divisions.

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

 

Film of the Book

 

For the most part, the film is a faithful rendering of the book with all the most important plot points (bar one, which I’ll come to later) and lines of dialogue included. The book is written in English, but the film varies the language depending on location, so that much of it is subtitled. Personally, I’m not keen on watching subtitled foreign language films, but I do think the decision makes sense in this film – it would have felt very false if the boys were speaking English in the Kabul sections of the film.

The two young child actors who play Amir and Hassan are very good, both managing to give their performances a feeling of naturalness. In fact, the casting in general is fine – no performance stood out for me as particularly great, but equally none were bad, so it has the feeling of a true ensemble piece rather than a star vehicle.

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Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada as Hassan and Zekeria Ebrahimi as young Amir

When watching a film soon after reading the book, I find it can be quite hard to know how well the story is being told. In this case, I felt that I may well not have got the nuances had I not read the book. The story has two main strands – Amir’s guilt over what he sees as his betrayal of Hassan, and the parallel being drawn between the breakdown of their friendship and the horror of what is happening to Afghanistan. Amir’s desire for redemption is a personalisation of the question of whether Afghanistan can ever be put back together again with its own divisions healed. In the film, I wasn’t convinced that Amir’s guilt came over terribly well, meaning that he actually came over as rather unlikeable and unsympathetic. (Admittedly, I didn’t sympathise with him in the book as much as I felt I was expected to either.) But I didn’t think the parallels between the personal and political came over clearly in the film at all, leaving it as simply a story of Amir’s personal journey rather than a symbol of the nation’s struggle.

Homayoun Ershadi as Baba
Homayoun Ershadi as Baba

Part of my problem with it is that, in an effort to condense it to a filmable length, it becomes a series of episodes rather than the free flowing story in the book. The book is narrated by Amir, so that we are privy to his innermost thoughts and emotions – always hard to portray in movie form, of course, and here I didn’t feel the film really captured it. As a result, I found I was distanced from the characters on screen, even Amir – watching their actions, rather than feeling their emotions. Sometimes the script tries to shoehorn in a shortcut to replace the stuff for which there hasn’t been room, and this can come over as totally false and forced. For example, adult Amir and his wife Soraya are unable to have children, which is not only a source of sorrow to them, but is important in their reaction to the child that Amir brings into their lives in the latter part of the story. In the film, this is portrayed by Soraya referring to Amir’s newly published book as “your baby” with heavy significance, rolling her sad eyes portentously and receiving a consoling hug from Amir. Hmm! This was the point where I first giggled inappropriately…

Khalid Abdalla as adult Amir and Atossa Leoni as Soraya
Khalid Abdalla as adult Amir and Atossa Leoni as Soraya

…but that wasn’t nearly as bad as my second bout of unseemly laughter, which I do feel really bad about, since the subject matter certainly isn’t amusing. When Amir has returned to Kabul as an adult, he is trying to contact a man who might be able to help him find Sohrab, the boy he’s looking for. He attends a football match, and at half-time the officials bring on a man and a woman who have been found guilty of adultery. In a scene of horrific brutality, the woman is then stoned. In the book, it’s a particularly powerful moment, showing the utter inhumanity of life under the Taliban. In the film… well, unfortunately, the profusion of false beards suddenly made me think of The Life of Brian… look! Here’s a screenshot… is it just me?

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I fear it probably is… but whether or not, it totally destroyed the drama for me as all I could hear in my head was Brian’s mother saying “He’s a very naughty boy!” And I must say, the film’s superficial portrayal of the horrors of the Taliban regime felt about as authentic as Monty Python too.

After that, the film never really recovered for me, I’m afraid. So when, for reasons entirely unexplained, the director chose to turn the major climax into a kind of action thriller scene and followed it up by totally omitting the bit that explains the final trauma which drives young Sohrab into muteness, I wasn’t as bothered as I otherwise might have been, since I’d been thrown completely out of the story by then anyway.

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I know this sounds as if I hated the film, and I really didn’t. As I said, it’s mostly a faithful reproduction of the book and is worth watching. But, for me, it didn’t achieve either the depth or the feeling of the original, and in the end felt workmanlike rather than wonderful.

★ ★ ★

So the choice is easy this time…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

the kite runner2

THE BOOK!

* * * * *

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

A story of Kabul…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

the kite runner2Two young boys grow up side by side in Kabul in the 1970s. Though in some ways they are best friends, they are not equal. The narrator, Amir, is the son of a rich man, whom he calls Baba, and Hassan is the son of Baba’s servant, Ali. Both boys are motherless: Amir’s mother died in childbirth, while Hassan’s mother ran away not long after he was born, leaving her husband to bring Hassan up alone. Amir is being educated, Hassan is illiterate and likely to remain that way. Hassan acts as Amir’s servant as well as his friend. But, more importantly in an Afghanistan divided along lines of class and religion, Amir is a Pashtun Sunni, part of the ruling class, while Hassan is a Hazara Shi’a – a group reviled and mocked. One day, during a kite-fighting competition, something will happen that will drive these friends apart, in a foreshadowing of the wars that will soon break the country apart. Many years later, as Amir returns to Kabul from his new home in America, his mission to put right some of the things left unresolved from his childhood mirrors the question of whether this broken country can ever find resolutions to its bitter divisions.

The first half of the book, which tells of the boys’ childhood and the event that changed their lives, is beautifully written, full of emotional truth. It is written in the first person from Amir’s point of view and he is a harsh judge of his younger self. He shows himself as weak and cowardly, traitorous even, while Hassan is all that is good and loyal and brave. Amir feels his father blames him for his mother’s death, and is jealous that Baba often seems to show as much fondness for Hassan as for himself.

I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.

While Hassan is a little too good to be true, it feels as if this is deliberate – that Amir’s guilt over his own actions has led him into idealising his childhood friend. And the reverse of that is that Amir’s depiction of himself also has to be seen as being affected by the same guilt, so that while sometimes it’s hard to like him, it’s still easy to empathise – to remember that he was a child and to look at how both boys had the prejudices of their society instilled into them from birth. We also see how Amir is affected by the struggle to gain his father’s affection despite feeling that he could never be the kind of boy his father wants his son to be.

For me, the second half of the book didn’t completely match up to the excellent standards of the first. Amir and his father flee the wars and end up in America. There is a lengthy section about their experiences there, and perhaps I’m just a little tired of the “immigrant experience” storyline now; it seems to have been done too often over the last couple of decades, and I didn’t feel this one added much to either that subject or this story. It feels like something of a hiatus, and a little contrived – a device almost, to allow Amir to return later to Kabul, looking at it through fresh, adult eyes. And when he does go back to Kabul, to show the horrors of life under the Taliban, it begins to verge on the polemical.

     In his rearview mirror, I saw something flash in his eyes. “You want to know?” he sneered. “Let me imagine, Agha sahib. You probably lived in a big two- or three-story house with a nice backyard that your gardener filled with flowers and fruit trees. All gated, of course. Your father drove an American car. You had servants, probably Hazaras. Your parents hired workers to decorate the house for the fancy mehmanis they threw, so their friends would come over to drink and boast about their travels to Europe or America. And I would bet my first son’s eyes that this is the first time you’ve ever worn a pakol.” He grinned at me, revealing a mouthful of prematurely rotting teeth. “Am I close?”
     “Why are you saying these things?” I said.
     “Because you wanted to know,” he spat. He pointed to an old man dressed in ragged clothes trudging down a dirt path, a large burlap pack filled with scrub grass tied to his back. “That’s the real Afghanistan, Agha sahib. That’s the Afghanistan I know. You? You’ve always been a tourist here, you just didn’t know it.”

Khaled Hosseini
Khaled Hosseini

This is a minor criticism though of what is, overall, a great book. I was thinking as I read the second half that it may well have affected me differently thirteen years ago when it was first published – I would have known far less about Afghanistan and almost nothing about the Taliban, and I suspect I would have found the book more shocking and gut-wrenching as a result. Now, if anything, the picture he paints seems a little muted – how easily we become conditioned to horror. Now the first half seems beautifully novelistic, but the second half feels almost journalistic, and the ending didn’t convince me nearly as much as the story of Amir and Hassan as children. I’m glad to have read it, though, and highly recommend it. I suspect it’s a book that will find its full impact again if and when we ever reach a point where this never-ending conflict is past and fading into history.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link