The impact of Khaled Hosseini's Afghan bestselling novel, The Kite Runner, stretches beyond the massive 8 million copies it has sold worldwide. In its celluloid version (rated PG-13 for strong thematic material including the rape of a child, violence, and brief strong language), the story will do much to show ordinary family life in the Muslim world.
Hosseini's bittersweet story set in Kabul is still a fixture on bestseller lists since its 2003 release. For a country whose name sparks images of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and endless war, the novel has become a beloved and refreshing look at Afghan culture beyond the strife.
The faithfully rendered film, opening Dec. 14, follows the childhood friendship between Amir, a boy from a well-to-do Kabul family, and his faithful servant Hassan. The motherless and artistic Amir struggles to please his formidable and athletic father Baba (Homayon Ershadi). His defining moment comes when, in an act of cowardice, he neglects to save the loyal Hassan from being raped by a neighborhood bully.
Guilt hounds Amir from 1970s Kabul to California, where he moves with Baba after the Soviets invade. Decades later, he returns to find Hassan's son. "There is a way to be good again," Amir's fatherly mentor, Rahim (Shaun Toub), says, and a theme of redemption weaves through the film's storyline.
The unknown boy actors, whom director Marc Forster picked locally, give delightfully instinctive performances. Up-and-coming British actor Khalid Abdalla plays the adult Amir. Born to Egyptian parents, raised in London, and a native Arab speaker, Abdalla could identify with the multiple worlds of Amir's character.
"You say the words Afghan or Muslim or Arab, and the associations are all negative," Abdalla told WORLD. "It's terrorism, it's Taliban, it's bombs. It's all those things before it's anything else, and this is a film that works to redress that balance and work against that."
Abdalla's first major role was playing lead hijacker Ziad Jarrah on United 93, about the fourth plane on 9/11 that crash-landed in Pennsylvania. Though the two films are very different, a subtle connection exists. Abdalla, after all, is an actor playing close to his ethnic and religious background. Such rare roles in a Western context make him careful about how he portrays Middle Eastern males.
"If there were a wealth of films about the Middle East in which it was normal to see people as normal people, it wouldn't feel like there's a through line. . . . There is that sense of the importance of being representative," Abdalla said. Abdalla is Muslim himself, but says he is "as secular as they come."
Author Hosseini describes The Kite Runner as his "love letter" to Afghanistan, and its relationships are compelling because they are so universal. Without Islamism and terrorism dominating the stage, we can enjoy the deftly drawn characters.
We pity Amir, longing for his father's approval. We ache for Hassan, whose plain goodness, loyalty, and kindness contrast with his young master's growing pettiness. Viewers will also delight in the story's simple homage to family values, as in the grown Amir's innocent courtship of a young Afghan woman.
Amidst all this, we learn of traditions such as Kabul's kite-flying competitions and the relationship between dominant tribal Pashtuns, represented by Amir, and the historical servant class of the Hazaras, represented by Hassan.
Despite its noble storytelling, however, the film has not escaped Afghanistan's bleaker realities. Fears grew that the rape scene, though tastefully done, might ignite a public backlash upon its local release. Paramount Pictures delayed The Kite Runner's debut by six weeks so it could relocate some of the child actors.
On Dec. 2, four of the children landed in the United Arab Emirates, where the studio has offered to support them until they finish high school. Zekiria Ebrahimi, who plays Amir, is 11, while Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada, who plays Hassan, is 13.
The two boys are already winning accolades for their roles. "They're extraordinary boys with so much talent," Abdalla said. "They've got Afghanistan in their bones." In using them, and in giving Westerners a new look at a tired country, The Kite Runner is forging important cultural firsts.