Our own Daniel Carlson recently posted an eloquent reminder about the perils of judging a movie by the book it’s based on, and the importance of respecting film adaptations as media separate from literature. Dan’s argument can’t be stressed enough, and it’s one of my hobby-horses, so I’ll take the opportunity to ride it a little while I have the floor: to justify or discredit a film based on how faithful it is to its source is to judge it unfairly. I’m a literature scholar before anything, but as Dan suggests, as long as a film reproduces the spirit of a novel in its quest to transform narrative from page to screen, and as long as the movie succeeds on its own terms — even if that means cutting out characters or events in the process — I’m satisfied. Film has a different agenda, after all, and different priorities. It gets to play with unique toys like visuals and actors, and in fact must give these elements primacy because of the impact of their presence. Moreover, what frequently distresses a viewer about a particular adaptation is the way the director’s personal imagining of the tale is the one that gets to gel into a tangible sight, and not our own (in my mind, for instance, Carey Elwes never was and never will be the real Wesley). We somehow feel robbed when this happens. It’s human, but it pays to detach, difficult as that sometimes is.
I had nothing to detach from, in this case, because I haven’t read the bestseller by Khaled Hosseini which The Kite Runner is based on. This is a review which has no choice but to judge its subject purely as a piece of cinema, so readers looking for an in-the-know comparison between book and film won’t find it here (I suspect The Kite Runner is one of those movies where the majority of viewers it attracts will be those who’ve read and loved the book, and its reception will no doubt center on book-to-film commentary). The individual baggage I brought into The Kite Runner was a whole other animal: the political context of Afghan history and current events (or at least what I know of it courtesy of CBC and various patchwork readings).
The story’s focus is Amir, the son of a well-to-do Pashtun man who had an important job and a lovely house in Kabul before the Soviet invasion in 1979. Amir’s best friend is the son of a household servant; the Pashtun community is ethnically dominant but, like his father, Amir rejects pressure to socialize only with his own kind. He quietly feeds off Hassan’s friendship and seems blind to the other’s lower economic status, which is attached in large part to Hassan’s Hazara identity — and if this seems like an oversimplified rendering of the pre-1979 ethnic/tribal situation in Afghanistan, that’s because the film itself presents it in quick, reductive bytes in order to proceed with the story. Hassan’s fealty to Amir is intense and lifelong, but Amir rejects this fealty one day and uses his friend’s ethnicity against him when Hassan is assaulted by three older boys after a kite-flying contest. The story follows Amir’s escape from the Soviet invasion, his new life in California, his return to Taliban-occupied Afghanistan as an adult, and the amends he eventually makes to Hassan for once attaching honor to the body rather than to the character.
The Kite Runner was directed by Marc Forster, and the styles he pinned onto previous films like Monster’s Ball and Stranger Than Fiction are largely absent here. Forster’s greatest strength is his chameleon ability to shift gears and set a visual tone that suits his script. I never would have imagined that the same eye and mind had directed each of these very different films. The Kite Runner, a Dreamworks production, looks and feels more like an Asian import — never a bad thing, in my opinion, and an especially good thing here, considering its source. The sky is wide open in most exterior shots, the cinematography precise and spare, the production design authentic-feeling, and the acting naturalistic and understated. It’s a movie that tries to respect the gentler pace of non-Hollywood filmmaking — the kind that tells a story in muted tones and with very little show. Forster almost “Westernizes” The Kite Runner with a handful of flat-footed, studio elements — the uncomfortably Orientalist opening titles, the CGI’d to hell and back kite-flying contests, and the Hallmark Greeting Card plot turns that fetch up awkwardly towards the film’s end (and which I suppose were born in the novel) — but the film’s hybridity isn’t inappropriate, considering the hybrid nature of the immigrant experience, felt by both Amir and his creator.
The Dreamworks belts and pulleys never completely disappear from the product, though, and make The Kite Runner a film that defies a pat verdict. It hopscotches between a strong, fascinating beauty designed to engage American viewers with its alien face, and mealy movie-of-the-week contrivances. Sentiment ultimately drowns out a superior sort of affect which, by and large, sustains itself up until the final half hour of the film; we swim in an almost nameless emotion born of grief over what’s been lost (personally, culturally, geographically), and share in the characters’ hard-nosed resolution to soldier on. This resolution is seen in Hassan, in Amir’s father, in a family friend who could never bring himself to leave his country, and eventually in Amir himself who, while never sloughing off his Afghan heritage in California, always seems a little nervous about embracing his father’s ecstatic nationalism.
Amir’s portrayal is no question the key, not only to the story but to the quality of the film. What ultimately transcends The Kite Runner’s saccharine wake is the caliber of Khalid Abdalla’s acting (and of every other performance, come to that). As the adult Amir, Abdalla has a riveting presence which communicates all the tension of the pent-up outsider anxious about doing the right thing for more than one person, or for more than one community,even as he tends to choose to do what most suits himself. It’s an incredibly quiet performance, rounding out a character who, despite all of the violence and upheaval he’s seen, chooses to live in a quiet world of his own structuring, until he returns to Afghanistan and participates in ideological fisticuffs. Even the brutality of Hassan’s rape, seen through the younger Amir’s eyes, manifests as a surprisingly sedate event. As a boy, Amir overheard his father criticize him for being too passive, for not standing for anything and therefore failing to plug into his own masculinity and upholding family and tribal duty. It isn’t until he’s a husband and a successful author, and until his own father is in the ground, that Amir mans up to his patriarchal summons while — paradoxically — challenging the acute authoritarianism of Taliban law simply with his presence.
As strong as the acting is in The Kite Runner, it’s the portrayal of Afghanistan that lingers. The film’s importance doesn’t lie in its trite reconciliation tale or its heavy-handed kite = freedom conceit, but in the way it transmits the agony of a country’s loss to viewers from other regions. The exterior shots were filmed in China and help to recreate an Afghanistan that doesn’t physically exist anymore. No amount of over-symbolic pomegranate juice or rape metaphors have anywhere near the same effect as seeing visual reminders of what three invasions and countless tribal wars have done to a region. The film’s best moments are when the plot recedes and the characters of Amir, his father, and Kabul then and now are allowed to fill the frame for a time. These alone were enough to generate emotion and create a hypnotic film. Everything else seems like window-dressing that obscures the view of what’s really worth communicating. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on December 31, 2007.)