The Kite Runner brings Khaled Hosseini's best-selling 2003 novel to the big screen. It's a sweeping tale of friendship and loyalty, betrayal and redemption as a young man haunted by a horrible choice discovers, in the words of a wise friend, "There is a way to be good again."
As the story opens, we watch through the eyes of Amir as kites dance in the sky above San Francisco Bay. Amir is a promising writer who has just published his first novel and gotten married. He has little time to enjoy that idyll, however, before an unexpected call from a family friend forces him to face the dark secret he's run from since he was 12.
His memory drifts back in time to his childhood in Kabul, Afghanistan. The year is 1978, and Amir is the timid, bookish son of a fiercely independent, well-to-do man known as Baba. The boy spends carefree days with Hassan, the son of Baba's lifelong servant, Ali.
All is well the day Amir and Hassan win a citywide kite-fighting competition. But when Hassan goes to retrieve a kite Amir has downed, he's ambushed by an older bully named Assef. Assef pummels the smaller boy—then rapes him.
Amir secretly watches the assault and does nothing to defend his friend.
The result is a gulf of guilt Amir can't cross. And he makes more choices that utterly separate him from his friend. He's still grappling with shame the day Soviet invasion forces roll into Kabul and force him and his father to flee, first to Pakistan, then to California.
Regret stalks Amir as he grows up and as his father slowly succumbs to lung cancer. Then he's given a shot at redemption when a friend of his father's asks him to come to Pakistan. Why? Hassan's son has fallen into the clutches of Taliban extremists.
[The depth of this film's themes, and the twists and turns it takes to reveal them require us to spoil a few plot points in this review.]
The Kite Runner is a heartrending story about redemption, atonement, coming to grips with one's weaknesses and making amends for wrongs done. Amir makes a horrible choice as a boy when he refuses to defend Hassan. Then, years later, as an act of humble penance, he returns to his homeland to rescue Hassan's son, Sohrab. That requires venturing into Taliban-held Kabul, and then a fortress controlled by that fanatically legalistic Muslim sect. Finally drumming up the courage he should have shown as a lad, Amir comes through for Sohrab, and he proceeds to raise him lovingly as his own son. (Hassan and the boy's mother have both been killed.)
As children, Amir and Hassan are inseparable, disregarding class and ethnic divisions. What Hassan lacks in education, he makes up for with fierce courage. That courage earns the praise of Amir's father, who wishes his own son could be more like his servant's.
Hassan is also a model of loyalty. He tells Amir he would eat dirt for him—and his actions match his talk. Even as Amir distances himself from Hassan after the rape, the servant boy never falters in his devotion. And we learn that Hassan and his wife die because Hassan is unwilling to surrender Amir's family property (which he has become a steward of in Amir's absence). In a poignant letter to Amir which is read years after they've had any contact, we hear how Hassan longed for renewed relationship and prayed that his friend would know God's good graces.
Other characters also extend grace at key moments. Amir's father treats his timid boy with disdain early on, but he slowly learns how to affirm Amir and eventually gives his son's writing career his blessing. He buys Hassan a kite for his birthday and forgives the boy when it seems he has stolen some of Amir's property. Escaping from Afghanistan in a dark fuel tanker trunk, Baba tells Amir, "Don't be afraid. I am right here with you." He proves his mettle when he courageously risks his life by standing up to a Soviet officer.
Years later, Sohrab's actions mirror Baba's when he stands up to his Taliban tormentor.
Amir's wife, Soraya, supports her husband's writing. She chooses to tell the truth about a relationship she's had before they get married. And the importance of telling the truth, it turns out, is also one of the film's main messages. Another character who exhibits kindness is Baba's friend Rahim, who encourages Amir to keep writing and praises his stories even when his father cannot do so. Further, Rahim tries to convince Amir that his father really does love him, even though he's harsh at times.
Perhaps in an effort to make the film more accessible to American audiences, the name of Allah is used infrequently; instead, Muslims simply refer to "God." And despite the city and country in which he lives, Amir grows up in a secular home. His father believes in neither Islam nor Communism, saying, "Mullahs want to rule our souls. The Communists tell us we don't have any." He calls mullahs "self-righteous monkeys."
Baba also shares an interesting perspective on sin. He tells Amir that the only sin is theft, and that all sin is a version of theft.
Rahim doesn't buy into Baba's secularism, and he repeatedly says, "If it be God's will" (and variants thereof). Hassan and his father, Ali, are shown to be simple but devout Muslims. (They are part of a detested, marginalized ethnic minority of Shia Muslims known as the Hazara.) The film depicts Hassan's faith as a significant shaping force. His letter to Amir praises "God the merciful and compassionate."
It's clear that Hassan's faith has been passed down to his son when Sohrab goes to a mosque to pray. Amir follows, and ends up praying himself. A song during that scene speaks of God's forgiveness, mercy, love and peace. It also mentions "peace and blessing for the prophet [Mohammed] and his family."
On the other end of the spectrum, the Taliban are shown to be bloodthirsty, legalistic hypocrites. A group of them stones two adulteresses to death, for instance, yet behind closed doors they drink, smoke, listen to Western music and (it's implied) sexually abuse children.
Easily the most shocking scene comes when Assef and his henchboys find Hassan alone. The beating they administer is bad enough. But Assef then informs Hassan that he'll never forget this day, yanking the younger boy's pants down (we briefly glimpse underwear) and pinning him to the ground. It's then visually implied that the bigger boy rapes Hassan, who painfully limps home afterwards. Droplets of blood on the snow confirm what happened. Amir arrives just as the assault is beginning, and watches, hidden, from a distance.
Years later, Sohrab has been taken by a Taliban general from an orphanage, and it's implied that the boy is being sexually abused by him. The orphanage owner tells Amir that this Taliban general regularly comes for young girls and boys, and that most of the children are never seen again. When Amir confronts the man for prostituting the children, the orphanage owner replies that it's better for one to be taken than for many to be punished. And that he uses the money given him to buy the other children food.
Another sexually oriented scene involves a Soviet officer demanding half an hour with a new mother in exchange for letting a truck full of fleeing Afghans pass. Baba stands up to the man, saying, "Where is your shame?" The officer replies, "There is no shame in war." Willing to sacrifice his life to protect the woman, Baba counters, "War doesn't negate decency."
An affair is talked about.
Beyond the sexual violence perpetrated, two women, who are covered from head to toe, are brought to a public soccer match to be stoned for adultery. Taliban men graphically execute this dark deed, and we see rocks hit them and bloody stains spreading on the women's garments as they lie dying.
A fight between the Taliban and Amir breaks out, and Amir ends up on the receiving end of fists and feet. He gets thrown into walls and the floor, and his face is badly bloodied. Sohrab then shoots the general in the eye with his slingshot, triggering a daring escape amid machine-gun fire.
Crude or Profane Language
At an American bar, Baba exclaims in broken English, "F--- the Russia!" The phrase is repeated in unison by amused patrons. Assef uses the sexual slur "f-ggot" twice to describe Amir and Hassan. There are also two uses each of "g--d--n" and "p---" in this mostly subtitled movie.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Baba drinks and smokes frequently—which leads to terminal lung cancer. Baba takes Amir to a bar for a drink when the young man graduates from college, buying a round for everyone. Several scenes depict people drinking wine and beer at parties and at Amir's wedding.
Other Negative Elements
Surrounded by shame, Amir begins to treat Hassan meanly, including throwing rotten fruit at him and calling him a coward. Amir then plants his watch under his friend's pillow and accuses him of stealing it. Hassan dutifully admits to the crime, and the boy and his father leave Baba's employment because of it.
Amir believes that his father "hates him" because Amir's mother died while giving birth to him. Assef persecutes Hassan in part because of his Hazara heritage.
The Kite Runner is one of those films that leaves you emotionally reeling while, paradoxically, filling you with hope and gratitude. I think it would be nearly impossible not to reflect on your own relationships and the places you've failed—and need grace as well—after watching this movie.
The path to those ends is unquestionably wrenching. Amir's betrayal of his friend is heartbreaking—all the more because Hassan's loyalty never wavers. And that, in turn, makes Amir's willingness to risk his life to save Sohrab all the more poignant. We see that forgiveness, change and freedom are not just possible, but that they are the only way life can continue.
We also see Hassan being raped. Though the scene is not explicit by today's theatrical standards, there's certainly enough implied and briefly shown to more than suggest what's happening—which raises a significant question: Should child actors ever be asked to participate in scenes that suggest such brutality? And should moviegoers ever be asked to watch?
The young actor who played Hassan claims he would have answered those questions with a clear "No!" had he known ahead of time what was to happen to his character. Twelve-year-old Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada said of his role, "They didn't give me the script. They didn't give me the story of the kite runner. If I knew about the story, I wouldn't have participated as an actor in this film."
As word about this painful scene began to leak out, the actor and his family became concerned that fellow Afghans would believe the rape actually occurred. "The people of Afghanistan do not understand that it's only acting or playing a role in a film. They think it has actually happened," Mahmidzada told the Associated Press. "It's not one or two people that I have to explain to. It's all of Afghanistan. How do I make them understand? We won't be able to walk in our neighborhood or Afghanistan at all." A former Afghan ambassador to the United States underscored the seriousness of the actor's concerns, telling slate.com, "To be raped or to be gay over there—it's unfortunately absolutely unacceptable."
Worries over Mahmidzada's safety eventually caused Paramount Vantage to delay The Kite Runner's release. And to take the significant step of moving all four Afghan boys who star in it to Dubai until after the film's opening.