Not flying so high
Per usual, film fails to capture nuances of the book
Marc Forster’s film version of Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel arrives bearing a misty aura of historical urgency and a measure of bookish prestige. Forster and screenwriter David Benioff give us an earnest two-hour run through the book’s central events, but the overall results lean a little too much in the direction of the routine feelgood potboiler.
Amir, narrator of the novel and central character of the film, is a young writer who was born in Afghanistan but is living in the United States. (San Francisco, in fact) at the start of the story. The title character is Amir’s childhood friend Hassan, a gifted kid from a minority background. An incident from their childhood in the 1970s (in pre-Taliban Kabul) haunts Amir throughout the story, but his burden of guilt is gradually magnified by much else—family secrets and the sorrows of recent Afghani history, in particular—with young Hassan and the somewhat ritualized sport of kite-flying as central emblems.
The story of Amir and Hassan sprawls over several landmark moments of contemporary world history—the “westernized” Kabul of the 1970s, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the ‘80s, the advent of the Taliban and the eve of 9/11—but even with Hassan’s escalating significance, the central focus remains mostly on Amir’s personal history. That he must come to terms with his past is plainly part of the point, but the film too often settles for sentimental gestures in the very moments where emotional honesty and real moral reckoning are called for.
Amir has plenty of reason to be a grievously haunted soul, but the film makes it a little too easy to float blithely past most of that. Forster and company leave no doubt as to the traumas—the childhood treacheries, the familial disillusionments—of Amir’s early life. Yet the movie’s relatively lightweight rendering of the adult Amir minimizes the impact—and the reality—of his dilemmas.
Some of the diminution is perhaps the inevitable fallout of a transfer of the novel’s first-person narration to the seemingly more objective story-telling action of movie entertainment. The film, to take a particularly telling example, is faithful to the novel’s tentatively happy ending, but without the palpable sense of lingering regrets—and pointedly unfinished redemption—that marks Amir’s own account in the novel.
Khalid Abdalla’s mildly resolute performance as the adult Amir may be part of the problem as well. Regardless, the film’s standout performance—Homayoun Ershadi as Amir’s paradoxically heroic father—presents a strong and necessary contrast that even the most gifted of young actors would find challenging.
Ershadi, as it happens, had the central role in a classic of contemporary Iranian cinema, Abbas Kiarostami’s unforgettable A Taste of Cherry. It may be that only a filmmaker with Kiarostami’s originality and daring could have made a first-rate film out of Hosseini’s haunted tale.