By this point, it is reasonable to discuss Marc Forster the auteur. Like Brett Ratner and Michael Bay, he makes consistently bad movies, all instantly recognizable as his own, but his at once trite and lofty award-stage aspirations mean that comparisons to the equally offensive Ron Howard are more apt. In the vile Monster’s Ball, the German-born director used a sex scene between Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry as an occasion to absurdly reference I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, revealing the extent of his racial consideration by having Thornton dip a white plastic spoon into a bowl filled with chocolate ice cream. Eyes rolled, James Baldwin cringed in his grave, and an Oscar was won. That same laughable penchant for metaphor and infantile understanding of real life tragedy also colors The Kite Runner, which made me wonder if Paramount Vantage, in pushing the film’s release date, should be worrying more about Forster’s wellbeing than the safety of the director’s young cast.
It was instructive to bring someone who swears by Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner to a screening of Forster’s movie adaptation. After recalling how a critic had compared the film’s kite-running sequences—positively, no less—to the Quidditch matches from the Harry Potter pictures, my friend suggested that I should still seek out Hosseini’s beloved bestseller, though he understood if I never did given how Forster has shat on it, transforming a presumably brutal and nuanced account of class difference and innocence lost into Disney-style kitsch. Forster touches on but never lingers on the traditions and social realties of his characters, so rather than lavish attention on the generations-old customs that inform Afghan kite-making, he settles for a CGI-enhanced spectacle of kites chasing after each other in the skies above Kabul, set to a bloated Alberto Iglesias score and recalling Nemo’s frantic escape from a shark in Finding Nemo. Shills may just call this one a “rollercoaster ride of excitement.”
There is a difference between childlike filmmaking and filmmaking that authentically captures the innocence of childhood. It is the same difference that separates a filmmaker like Forster from Truffaut and Buñuel (even the giants of Iranian cinema, like Kiarostami and Panahi), both of whom understood how children truly live and suffer and how movies are consumed. Forster’s head is still in Neverland, exaggerating the state of Kabul before and after the Russians arrive: Prior to the Soviet invasion, the city is conceived as an Epcot Center world showcase, then something not unlike a Romper Room version of Children of Men’s apocalyptic wasteland—the trees gone, the Taliban on Beard Patrol, and bodies dangling in the streets. When Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) and Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) go to the movies to see The Magnificent Seven, the scene has less to do with their sense of childhood wonder or bourgeoning adult appetites (see 400 Blows and Bad Education for that level of sensitivity) as it does with Forster’s desire to stress Amir’s lack of masculine courage—a perceived character flaw from which all of the story’s horrors stem.
This Hollywood whitewash barely acknowledges class difference in Afghanistan, dubiously identifying valor as a poor man’s provenance. Over and over again, Forster reminds us that Amir is a coward and Hassan is a saint, maybe even some kind of mystic given his gift for spotting the location of clipped kites without ever looking at the sky; Hassan is a brave, hectoring little man who takes his rape by a Pashtun bully like a trooper and later admits to stealing a watch out of some wildly overstated and conceptualized sense of pride. When Amir, a wannabe writer, elaborates on a short story he wrote about a man who kills his wife so he could cry into a cup and have his tears turn into pearls, Hassan asks, “Couldn’t he have just smelled an onion?” This begs another question: When Amir throws pomegranates at Hassan, is it because he feels responsible for his friend’s rape or because he resents the way Hassan is always laying it on so thick? Rather than fight back, Hassan simply picks a piece of fruit from the ground and smashes it on his own face. For sure, righteousness has rarely been conveyed on screen with such shrillness.
Regardless of its previous unedited incarnation, Hassan’s rape is so “tastefully” presented it doesn’t register as an act of brutalization so much as a sweet nothing (producer Rebecca Yeldman calls it “non-gratuitous” and “impressionistic”)—a shot of pants being pulled down, a belt being unbuckled, and Hassan’s anal blood dotting the ground like maple syrup being drizzled over a stack of pancakes. The death of Bambi’s mother was less discreet and more difficult to endure, and though the scene is almost as embarrassing to describe as it was to watch (Forster and his team could have learned a few things from Yilmaz Arlan’s Fratricide), it’s not nearly as punishing as the litany of homilies that make up much of the dialogue. “Children aren’t coloring books. You don’t get to fill them in with your favorite colors.” “There’s something missing in that boy.” “It’s a dangerous thing to be born.” And that’s all said within a five minute stretch of film!
Forster is a master of hackneyed tone, so it isn’t too farfetched to presume that he’s reduced Hosseini’s novel to its big moments and even bigger lines. Because much of the film takes place in 1978, the story feels rushed when the action shifts to San Francisco, where an older Amir (Khalid Abdalla) now lives with his Baba (Homayon Ershadi), dreaming of being a fiction writer while wooing a former Afghan general’s daughter. This sloppy section of the film is played for old-country-versus-new-country bathos before the story flashes forward again, this time to 2000, when Amir, now a published writer, returns to his motherland—a Temple of Doom where the story’s symbols (kites, pomegranates, and slingshots, oh my!) converge in the same ridiculously concentrated manner as they do throughout Stay. An old foe reemerges and Amir’s duel with him is basically staged as a video game’s boss fight, with the spoils of battle neatly filling a marital void and conveniently allowing Amir to fulfill the prophecy of the film’s transparent and profoundly condescending message: Stop Being a Pussy.