Much like the best-selling novel on which it’s based, “The Kite Runner” tells the story of an Afghan refugee who, long after arriving in America, sifts through memories of his cosseted childhood, his emotionally remote father, his devoted best friend, the kites they flew and the stories they shared. The back of my paperback copy of this Khaled Hosseini novel is sprinkled with words like “powerful” and “haunting” and “riveting” and “unforgettable.” It’s a good guess that this film will be rolled around in a similarly large helping of lard.
There’s another word on the back of my copy: “genuine.” The portrait of Afghan culture broadly painted by its narrator, a 38-year-old novelist known as Amir (played in the film by the Scottish-born Khalid Abdalla), certainly seems like the real deal, a sense of authenticity underscored by the book’s evocation of the Afghan diaspora in America, its descriptions of traditions and rituals and the numerous italicized words like “Kocheh-Morgha” (“Chicken Bazaar”) and “Shirini-khori” (“ ‘Eating of the Sweets’ ceremony”). That said, it is difficult to believe in the authenticity of any book (and its author) in which a born and bred Afghan narrator asks of the Taliban — as this one does in June 2001 — “Is it as bad as I hear?” David Benioff’s clumsy screenplay doesn't broadcast its political naïveté as openly, but only because the filmmakers seem to assume that unlike the book’s readers, the movie audience doesn't care about such matters. Mr. Benioff gestures in the direction of Communists and mullahs, the Soviet invaders and the Taliban insurgents, but none of these players figure into the story in any meaningful fashion. The director Marc Forster, following the script’s lead, scrupulously avoids politics and history — there are no causes or positions, just villains and horrors — and instead offers us a succession of atmospheric, realistic landscapes, colorful sights and smiling boys. And kites. Lots and lots of bobbing, darting, high-flying kites.
Like the recent film version of Ian McEwan’s novel “Atonement,” another story ignited by the destructive behavior of a pubescent child, “The Kite Runner” presents a world informed by a variant of original sin. In both, a child’s damaging words and deeds give way to — and seem to foreshadow and somehow even to incite — the larger violence of war. The two stories register very differently, both on the page and on screen, yet what’s curious is how each presents childhood as an already corrupted state that is redeemed only by adult grace. In these stories war becomes a kind of cleansing agent for the destructive child, who, after enduring hardships, matures into a properly contrite adult (and a fiction writer to boot).
It takes a while for that contrition to surface in “The Kite Runner.” First the adult Amir has to conjure up a leisurely flashback during which his 12-year-old self (Zekiria Ebrahimi) rushes through the dust and the exotica — past the woman in a burka and the severed animal heads — pausing to read, write and fly kites. He worships his gruff father, Baba (Homayoun Ershadi), a businessman who swills alcohol and dismisses the mullahs as “monkeys.” Amir, in turn, is adored by the…