The Kite Runner" has been published in dozens of countries—and bootlegged in several more. But the trickiest translation arrives this month, and at a movie theater near you. Hollywood adaptations are often disappointing, so it's a relief to report that this one is refreshingly faithful to its source. Still, "The Kite Runner" has weathered some turbulence. The release was delayed several weeks because the studio feared the Afghan child actors would be in danger due to fallout from a pivotal and grueling rape scene. (They have since been moved to the United Arab Emirates.)
Author Khaled Hosseini, director Marc Forster and actor Khalid Abdalla spoke with NEWSWEEK's Lorraine Ali about their hopes for the film, their love of the book and their fear of Hollywood.
Ali: This is truly a global film—the director is Swiss-American, the novelist Afghan-American and the lead actor Egyptian-British. And it was shot in China.
Hosseini: Yes, all the scripts were in Chinese, Farsi and English.
Abdalla: The first day we were shooting this busy market scene, and that was crazy enough: donkeys, cars, pedestrians. But then there was this relay race of communication from one language to another. It was chaos.
The majority of the dialogue in "The Kite Runner" is in Dari, with English subtitles. For a mainstream film, that seems like a huge risk.
Forster: When we first put it out there, I think the studio imagined it all done in English. When I came onboard, I just couldn't see two boys flying kites in Kabul while speaking English. I thought it wouldn't feel right.
Were any of the Kabul scenes shot in Afghanistan?
Forster: Nothing. You just don't have the infrastructure and the crew there. China has all that. Also, in Kabul, a lot of the architecture had been destroyed there after 30 years of war.
Was there ever an idea that a big name like Tom Cruise should play the lead character, Amir?
Hosseini: I actually had discussions where those kind of names were thrown around.
Hosseini: Yes, I remember wincing, thinking, "I can't see actors who are featured on 'Entertainment Tonight' in Kabul." I remember early on talking to Marc, and I floated the idea by him that the studio was considering this big actor for the film. When I heard this kind of disapproving groan come out of him, it made me happy.
How did you find the Afghan kids who play the lead roles?
Forster: The casting director I did "Finding Neverland" with basically looked all over the world where Afghan refugees had settled—Holland, Germany, Virginia, England. We couldn't find anybody that really represented them, especially since Hassan is Hazara [the Hazara are Shia Muslims, an ethnic minority who are often discriminated against in Afghanistan] and they didn't have the means to leave the country. At the time, Kabul seemed safe and I thought we needed to go there to understand the culture better, so we went, saw thousands of kids, then focused on two schools. Out of those kids we found Amir, Hassan and Sohrab. Most people we met were familiar with the book. It's been published in Farsi. Khaled, is that official?
Hosseini: No, pure piracy. My overseas agent calls just to say, "Your book's doing amazingly well in Iran. It's in it's fifth printing. I'll send you a copy." And it's all bootleg. I was in Kabul; "The Kite Runner" in Farsi is a best seller.
Was it frustrating, dealing with nonactors?
Abdalla: To me, they have Afghanistan in their bones. To find kids somewhere else and have them do those things would be an impossibility—the way Hassan squats to sit, the way they eat a pomegranate—there's stuff like that you could not find anywhere else.
The film's debut had to be postponed because you wanted to move the children out of Afghanistan due to concerns over the rape scene and the way Afghan audiences might react to it. Were there actual threats?
Forster: There were no threats, but if there were any repercussions in Afghanistan, we wanted them out of the country. Their safety was our main concern. Their school year ended in September; that's why we pushed the release of the film, so they could finish school before the film came out. You see, there are no movie theaters left in Afghanistan. The Taliban destroyed them all, so it's all DVD piracy copies.
Khaled, what were your concerns in having the book adapted to the screen?
Hosseini: Ian McEwan had a great quote about that. He said, "A screen adaptation of a novel is like a controlled act of vandalism." But I loved film from a very early age; as you can see from the Steve McQueen references in "Kite Runner," I didn't have any misguided romantic notions that my novel had to be translated exactly on screen.
Kite flying is a national pastime in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Were you ever worried about getting it wrong?
Forster: We actually hired kite experts who taught the kids to fly kites in Kabul and China. We choreographed all the kite fights with a kite master—he showed us which moves are the best, the best attacks and retreats.
Were there other cultural advisers?
Abdalla: Yes, too many, and they all started fighting with each other.
Forster: We'd be setting up the really emotional funeral scene, and one would say, yes, there should be flowers on the grave when a Muslim dies. Another said absolutely not, there are no flowers. Most of the time they were helpful, but sometimes, not so much.
Hosseini: To be fair, it would happen with any culture. Ask an American family what you serve for Thanksgiving, and you'll hear 15 different ways of doing it.
The film also gives you a sense of how much Kabul intersected with Western culture, pre-Soviets. I think there is a sense here that Afghans were living in the Stone Age.
Hosseini: People tell me quite bluntly, "I had no idea there were trees in Afghanistan. I thought it was all desert, like the Sahara." But it is lush, green valleys, rivers, flowers—it's a stunningly gorgeous country. The word "Afghanistan" summons such negative images—bin Laden, terrorists. But there's such a romantic, enchanted quality to those early scenes in the film—the first hour. A beautiful childhood, this peaceful country. For a lot of my readers, it's a shock that such an era ever existed in Afghanistan, but the fact is Afghanistan didn't come into being with the Soviet war. There was a long history of tradition and culture.
Amir is the only lead Muslim character I've seen in a Hollywood film who's not hatching a terror plot.
Hosseini: There's a billion Muslims in the world; that means 5 billion prayers a day. Out of that, how many times do they follow the prayer by blowing up a building? Yet, if you just knew Islam through film, seemingly quite a lot of the time prayers are followed by something exploding. In this film, Islam is simply the rhythm of life.
One thing I did not expect going into this film were all the parallels between Kabul then and Baghdad now: war, an occupying force, displacement. It was really striking.
Abdalla: Yes—civil war, refugees. Part of me imagines a book like "The Kite Runner" in 15 years coming from a displaced Iraqi. I definitely see parallels.
Forster: In general, wars led by superpowers—Russia in Afghanistan, America in Iraq—there's a similar structure to it. How a superpower invades and what happens after that—there's a lot of parallels, even if you go back to the Roman times. I'm always surprised humanity doesn't seem to learn.