"Now, there is a way to be good again."
I felt about the movie about the same as I felt about the book. On the one hand, author Khaled Hosseini so filled his best-selling, 2003 novel "The Kite Runner" with sensational events, sentimental relationships, and monumental coincidences, you'd think you were reading the script for a weekday soap opera. On the other hand, the book's characters are so compellingly sympathetic and the circumstances so gripping, you can hardly put it down. Hosseini created a powerful page-turner, even if he didn't create a great work of literature.
Adapting the book into a successful movie was no easy task for director Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball," "Finding Neverland," "Stranger Than Fiction," "Quantum of Solace"), screenwriter David Benioff ("25th Hour," "Troy"), and my old friend and former student (full disclosure) film editor Matt Cheese ("Monster's Ball," "Finding Neverland," "Stranger Than Fiction," "Quantum of Solace"). The story is at once intensely personal yet highly universal, telling of a boy-turned-man and his profound inner struggles with a perceived cowardice, while at the same time covering some twenty-two years and providing a recent history of Afghanistan and its turmoil in the process. The filmmakers had to capture the anguish, the introspection, and the redemption of the central character, along with securing the beauty and tragedy of real-world occurrences. Whew! That is a lot to do in little more than two hours. Despite the obstacles, I'd say the filmmakers pulled it off better than one could expect.
Whereas refashioning any novel for the screen is a tricky business under the best of circumstances, when the book is as popular as Hossieni's, it makes it even harder. You have to cut the book down to a couple of hours, which can be beneficial in the case of a long-winded narrative like "The Kite Runner," yet in making the tale more concise, you run the danger of losing some of the story's emotional impact. You really can't win, unless you take a middle-of-the-road approach as the filmmakers do with their movie, and then you don't get quite the impassioned roller-coaster ride you'd hoped for. So, the result here is a good but not classic movie of a good but not classic novel, each effective and each disappointing in its own way.
Anyhow, I realize that millions of people the world over love the novel "The Kite Runner"; I'm just not one of them. I admire the book's sincerity but find its action too exaggerated for my taste. Unfortunately, that reaction carries over to the movie as well. The movie tries its best but somehow never conveys as much soul as it should.
The main character is an Afghan named Amir (played by as an adult by Khalid Abdalla and as a child by Zekeria Ebrahimi), who undergos intense personal conflicts over the course of the story's twenty-odd-year plot. After a brief introduction in 2000, the movie flashes back to Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1978, shortly before the Russian invasion. Amir is a boy living with his father, Baba (Homayaoun Ershadi), a rich businessman whom Amir, as a boy, thinks hates him. Amir is a child of privilege in a largely poor country, and his best friend, Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada), is the son of a family servant. For most of their boyhood, Amir and Hassan are inseparable. However, while Baba wants his son to be a man and stand up for himself, it is Hassan who most often fights Amir's battles for him. And to make matters worse, Baba is a bull of a man who will face down anybody. So, Amir harbors a brooding resentment toward his friend Hassan as well as a suspicion that he can never live up to his father's expectations of him.
It is only Amir's expertise in kite flying and kite-cutting contests with other boys that Amir feels he can succeed in his father's eyes, and when he wins Kabul's biggest contest of the year, it makes him and his father proud. But it also leads to an incident that changes Amir's life forever. A local bully and racist named Assef and his friends taunt Hassan for being a Hazara, whom they consider inferior to their own ruling class, the Pashtun, and after the kite-flying contest in which Hassan has been assisting Amir, Assef and his flunkies corner Hassan and rape him. Amir watches this incident from a hiding place a short distance away, unable to bring himself to do anything to help his friend. Shortly thereafter, Amir commits what he considers another treacherous act, and he forever considers himself a coward for his behavior in both instances. The rest of the story concerns Amir's prolonged quest for redemption.
When the Russians invade Afghanistan, Amir and Baba flee the country, eventually settling in America (Fremont, California), where the middle part of the story takes place. By 2000, Amir, now married and a professional writer, returns to Afghanistan for the concluding events of the tale, and it's here that I found the story getting much too theatrical and improbable. By this time, the Taliban have driven out the Russians and proven themselves as bad or worse than the Russians ever were, replacing Communist repression with overzealous religious persecution. It is under these conditions that Amir must face one of the biggest challenges of his life, and the story comes to its climax.
As I say, the plot covers a lot of time, a lot of ground, and a lot of characters, with the moviemakers trying to cram it all into 127 minutes. Some of it works; some of it doesn't. The cinematographer beautifully captured the kite-flying contest in Kabul, if a bit too dreamily. That's OK, as this is a childhood memory romanticized by the passing years. The rape scene became quite controversial in the movie, the Afghan child actor's parents claiming they didn't know the incident was in the script and fearing for their son's life in Afghanistan, where such a thing, even in movies, is taboo. Regardless, the movie handles the rape scene so discreetly that you hardly even know what's happening (the film gets a PG-13 rating), suggesting the crime rather than showing it.
For the sake of authenticity, the filmmakers shot a good part of the film on location, although they chose to do most of the Afghanistan sequences in China. In addition, they chose to have their mostly Afghan cast speak their native language, using subtitles for the first third or more of the picture. Along with uniformly good acting from a cast I would imagine is largely unknown to American audiences, everything works well enough to persuade us to accept the characters, if not always their actions. I particularly liked the father, Baba, in the movie, Homayaoun Ershadi tending to dominate, as he should, almost every scene he's in.
If one looks at the novel on which the screenwriters based their plot, sections of it are quite moving, the depiction of close family ties, for instance; yet the novel is so episodic it doesn't always linger on any one segment long enough to develop it much. Thus, the book as a whole doesn't hang together as well as many of its parts. I mention this because in attempting to be faithful to the book, the screenwriters have retained the novel's key scenes but condensed them further. This makes the movie seem briefer and even less substantive than the book.
Several other items stand out impressively in my memory, though. In particular, the lovely opening titles, art direction by Karen Murphy, graphics design by Doreen Austria, and special effects rendering by MK12; the atmospheric music by Alberto Iglesias; the striking cinematography by Roberto Schaefer; and some remarkably fluid film editing by Matt Chesse.
Anyway, if I seem more than a little ambivalent about this movie, understand it's in the nature of the story. Even though "The Kite Runner" as a novel and as a movie is remarkably sentimental, it can be effectively touching, too, and it is this quality that the filmmakers retain more than any other. On the minus side, I missed the fact that the film doesn't emphasize Amir's guilt as strongly as the book does, and that tends to diminish the story's impact. Yet to have done so would have necessitated making the film longer, and I'm usually against unnecessarily lengthy movies.
At least the film knows when to end. The novel actually goes on with several more complications before it concludes, complications that the movie wisely avoids. There is sometimes value in brevity.
This is one of the finest-looking high-definitions movies I've seen of live action. DreamWorks use a BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec to reproduce the 2.35:1 ratio film to perfection. The colors are beautiful, vibrant, sometimes brilliant, yet always natural. Definition is precise, very occasionally a little soft in close-ups, depending probably on the camera and lenses used, but most often clear and sharp. Black levels are deep, contrasts are well judged, grain is at a realistic minimum, and things like DNR and EE are nowhere in evidence.
To complement the excellence of the video, DreamWorks use lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 for the soundtrack, which does just about everything one could ask of it. However, note that the soundtrack seldom calls upon the rear speakers and seldom resorts to room-shaking dynamics or deepest bass. Most of the movie is dialogue driven, so it's the midrange that carries the day. However, during those few instances where explosions are present, we do feel the dynamic impact, hear a subtle and refined bass. Moreover, we notice that crowd noises show up periodically in the surrounds.
There's a fair assortment of bonus materials on the disc. Of course, we get an audio commentary, this one with director Marc Forster, novelist Khaled Hosseini, and screenwriter David Benioff, who chat pleasantly with one another about adapting and filming the novel. Then, there's a one-minute or so public service announcement by Mr. Hosseini asking viewers to support a stronger, freer Afghanistan. Next, there are two standard-definition featurettes, "Words from The Kite Runner," fourteen minutes, with the producer, director, author, and screenwriter discussing the film adaptation; and "Images from The Kite Runner," twenty-four minutes, with the filmmakers taking us behind the scenes from preproduction to postproduction.
Things conclude with sixteen scene selections and bookmarks; a high-definition theatrical trailer; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
So, is it fair to criticize a film for being too faithful to a book? I mean, for the filmmakers to have changed too much for the sake of cinematic expediency would have enraged the best-sellers' legion of avid followers. Besides, where do filmmakers get off thinking they know better than an author? Be that as it may, "The Kite Runner" movie is faithful, indeed, to the book--for better or for worse. In fact, it's probably for the better because I'm one of those folks who, recognizing the book's and the movie's faults, enjoyed both of them reasonably well despite their exaggerated emotional underpinnings.
For melodrama, it ain't bad.