Khaled Hosseini’s wildly popular 2003 novel THE KITE RUNNER arrives on screens this holiday season in the form of a treacly, cliché-ridden that raises the big issues people think Oscar voters love. Though there are aspects to admire, it is clear the filmmakers believed that simply retelling the story would have been good enough to hit a homerun, but it leaves its viewers cold and unaffected at the end.
The film tells the story of Amir (Zekeiria Ebrahimi as a child, Khalid Abdalla as an adult), an Afghan immigrant novelist living in California. He receives a phone call from an old friend in Pakistan, asking him to return to his homeland so he can “do good again”. Amir reflects on his early life in Kabul, where he and his best friend Hassan (Ahmad Kahn Mahmidzada) flew kites everyday, practicing for a city-wide kite tournament. When a violent attack on Hassan splits the boys apart, the entire world seems to unravel. The Soviets soon invade and Amir and his father are forced to flee, eventually winding up in America. Amir grows to into young adulthood, missing his friend all the while. He returns to Pakistan, where he finds a chance to repay his dear friend; he must rescue Hassan’s son Sohrab from the Taliban rule in Afghanistan.
The film’s most crippling flaw is its by-the-numbers and passionless screenplay, courtesy of David Benioff (who’s other work includes gems like TROY and STAY). It adapts the book with a mind to being as straightforward as possible; little to no time is taken to develop characters in a purely cinematic form. The depth of Amir and Hassan’s friendship must be assumed, because there is no explicit demonstration of it in the actual film. A revelation late in the film explains a bit more about the characters, but Amir’s drive to save Sohrab rests almost exclusively on what is said in clichéd preachy dialogue, not what is shown. It is understood why Amir returns to Pakistan to help Hassan, but because of the weak writing, it feels more like an obligation than a chance to ease a terribly guilty conscience. Another irritating trait in the script is its use of language. The sequences of Amir’s youth are told in dialects spoken in Kabul (a brave choice for a big studio-funded film). But makes makes it irritating when the characters switch back and forth between English and Middle Eastern dialects in Amir’s adulthood. Characters start conversation in their native languages, then switch to English when important points must be made.
Director Marc Forster retains the interesting visual eye he displayed in FINDING NEVERLAND and STRANGER THAN FICTION, but it sometimes causes the film to feel like a family-friendly look at life in the Middle East. There is danger there, but the true horrors seem skirted around. In some instances, the restraint shown works quite well (and is quite necessary), but most everything else remains curiously bright and cheery. It reflects the mindset of the young boys early in the film, and it works there; this is mainly because of the spirited and heartwarming performances from Ebrahimi and Mahmidzada. Some of the technical work is spotty as well; though the kite tournament is vibrantly rendered via CGI, the all-computerized shots of the kites flying and the live action shots of the children on the ground never really connect, and the film looses the sense of excitement it should have. Alberto Iglesias’s score is an oddity; starting off melodic and evocative but quickly turning overbearing and terribly orchestrated.
The filmmakers likely assumed that the popularity of the book would guarantee them a success, and that was their first mistake. It has happened many times with high-profile literary adaptations; not enough care is put into making it an actual film. The chief problem here is the screenplay, which does not adequately describe the characters and their emotions. Oh sure, they say how they feel, but a viewer can handle only so many heavy-handed speeches with statements about life we’ve heard before. There is some joy and truth to be found in THE KITE RUNNER, but it is not nearly as effective as its source.