Directed by Marc Forster (2007)
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.
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.
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.
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…
…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?
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.
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…