Saturday, December 15, 2007

Interview: 'The Kite Runner' Novelist Khaled Hosseini


Born in Afghanistan in 1965, Khaled Hosseini left in 1976 as his family was relocated to Paris as part of his father's work for the diplomatic service. It was fortunate timing; while preparing to return to Kabul in 1980, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan plunged the nation into decades of chaos some would suggest it has yet to emerge from. Gaining political asylum in America, Hosseini's family moved to San Jose, California; after attending medical school, Hosseini worked as doctor in Los Angeles -- and wrote his first novel. Not only was The Kite Runner published, but it was on the New York Times best-seller list for over two years, and eventually printed in over 42 languages. Now, after years of development and no small share of controversy, The Kite Runner has come to the silver screen; after screening the film for the closing night of the 30th annual Mill Valley Film Festival, Hosseini spoke with a roundtable of journalists in San Francisco about the challenges of adaptation, the genesis and possible fallout of the film's controversial scene of sexual assault and his own memories of Afghanistan. Cinematical's questions are indicated.

Cinematical: What did you learn about the process of movie making going through this experience?

I underestimated the sheer amount of labor it takes to shoot the seemingly simplest scene, just the amount of work that goes just into setting up a scene and how each member of the team has to do their job exactly right, otherwise the whole thing falls apart. It's very labor intensive. It's also very monotonous. It's exciting in a way, but -- you're doing the same thing over and over and over again. So there's a sense of monotony. I underestimated how exhausting it was. The hours are very long and physically it's very demanding. I don't know how some of these guys do it for 10, 20, 30 years, especially the crew. It's a lot of hard work.

How involved were you in the process?

I was kind of a cultural consultant, a story consultant. Maybe the best way to illustrate it is with an example; I went to L.A. and sat in an office with the producers and we looked at hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pictures that a scout had taken around the world. And they wanted me to kind of chime in and say if there was any locale that could be used to as stand in for 1970s Kabul. And we looked at Turkey and Tunisia, Morocco and India, Pakistan, but western China, the minute those pictures started coming up, I said, 'This place.' So they went out there and the Afghans who have seen the film are startled at the resemblance.

So that kind of thing – questions about dress, about food, about the way a home is decorated, a variety of things of that nature. But I didn't write the screenplay. Obviously, David (Benioff) did. I read the screenplay and we all kind of chimed in our ideas and David wrote another draft, but really it's his creation.

How do you feel the film captures Amir's betrayal of Hassan, the scene where the boy is attacked? From the work you had do creating that scene, how do you feel about seeing it on screen?

I think the scene was shot tastefully. I think in other hands, it could have really been exploitative, kind of graphic, and I don't think there's any need for that. When the boy walks out of the alley and you see the droplets of blood in the snow, I always feel this incredible moment in the audience where they go, 'Oh!' Suddenly, it elevates the film to another level. The stakes are raised at that moment. It's really a devastating moment.

(KH Continued:) We might as well talk about that scene. You probably have questions about it, since it's been in the news. But I feel that that scene is pivotal to the movie. There's been talk, people say, 'Maybe you should take away that scene. Take it out of the movie.' But then I think you have to scrap the whole movie, because what happens in that alley is so reprehensible that it scars the central character in a way and he carries the guilt of what happened there for the rest of his life, and is in many ways, it's the reason he goes back there and puts himself in danger's way to rescue a boy he's never met. I think if it was just a simple beating in the alley, it would stretch the limits of plausibility that he would be so affected by that. So I think the scene is pivotal.

On the other hand, I think that, because of the circumstances around that scene, because of the real-life circumstances that I'm sure we're going to talk about, that scene can't overshadow the story. Because even though that scene is pivotal, the movie is not about that scene, no more than the book is about that scene. This is not something – some of the headlines have said, 'The Kite Runner, a story about rape and sexual predators.' It's not a story of rape. It's not a story about sexual predators at all. And it's not a story about kites! [Laughs] It's a story about fallible people who make mistakes and pay for it in all sorts of way. It's a story about people and their children. It's a story about people losing their homeland. It's about forgiveness. It's about honor and cowardice. We have to look at the story in a more panoramic way, rather than myopically, focusing on one scene and having that scene kind of overshadow the story you're trying to tell. The film denounces that. The story denounces what happens in that alley.

Some people have said, you know, 'this film supports rape.' That's preposterous, absolutely preposterous. The spirit in which this film was made, the people involved in this film, the story of the film, is so antithetical to those charges.

How hard was it to create that scene in the book? Did you have alternative ways you wanted to do it? Or was that always the way you wanted to show it?

It was important to me that was happened in that alley was rape, because I can't think of an uglier crime. It's a crime where one person exerts their will in the ugliest, strongest fashion over another human being. To me, the scene when I was writing it, has a kind of allegorical dimension to it, as well, in many ways. A lot of Afghans feel, whether it's right or not is debatable, but nevertheless that's how they feel, what happens to Hassan in that alley -- after he runs that kite for Amir and after he has served his purpose – he is abused and raped, while Amir watches; they felt that is what happened in Afghanistan. Once a million Afghans died and the Soviets were defeated, which is no small way contributed to the end of the Cold War, once that happened, the international community just kind of watched while the Afghan community was brutalized by these warlords and by the extremists and the Taliban and they did nothing.

When I went to Afghanistan after I wrote the book, before it was published, it was chilling for me, because people would use that word 'rape.' In conversation, they would say, 'You know, people came and raped this country and nobody did anything.' It was just incredible for me to hear that, given that I had just written this novel with this scene, with that idea, and that I would hear it echoed in these people. It was a really remarkable experience.

Cinematical: Your protagonist is a writer, which can work very well in books. Writers are reactive, they're observational, they keep to themselves. Normally, the writer-protagonist doesn't terribly work well in film, because those very qualities don't work well on-screen. Do you feel like that jump translated on screen, or do you worry that audiences are going to watch Amir as a boy and as a man say, 'Why didn't he do something sooner?' Is film a slightly more dynamic medium than fiction for you?

I don't know. Amir is a writer. That's important in the novel, but I don't think it's all that central. It ties in with some of the themes in the story, Amir reading Hassan his new story and the power dynamics that were present. I find it hard, as well, to watch writers on screen and there are a whole slew of movies about writers, but I think Marc's approach to not focus too much on that was probably the right one, because it's a difficult thing to pull off. I think it's done with the right amount of balance. Actually, one of the things that is different about this film is that you actually get to hear some of his writing. Usually, you see the writers writing, but you never hear their actual writing, but there's that lovely piece that David Benioff wrote that he reads for his father at the bedside in the hospital. But, anyway, there are films about writers and some work really well and some that don't, but I don't really think this movie is per se about writers and writing.

Has the book been widely read in Afghanistan? Has it been translated?

To the extent that it can be read in a country where 70% of the people are illiterate. There's virtually no awareness of it, I think, in the countryside. Within the urban areas, much more, but even then, basically among the educated professionals. A lot of people are [illiterate]. That's hopefully changing how. I think one of the successes of Mr. Karzai's regime has been in the field of education. That tide is turning.

There is awareness. I was in Kabul last month and I found that the awareness of my book was largely in the expat community. But film was different. Film is a whole different medium.

Cinematical: If you hear that there are pirated copies of the film The Kite Runner being sold in Kabul, will you feel depressed or vindicated?

That's a fait accompli. That's going to happen within days of the film's release. Nobody can kid themselves about that. That's just reality. It's not my film per se, so I won't feel any more – there are pirated copies of my book, you know, in Iran, where it's had multiple printings. They're written my letters that said, 'We're going to publish your book. Unfortunately, we don't have copyright laws, so we're going to publish your book. We just wanted to let you know.'

The imagery that really comes across in the book and the film is of the kite flying and the kite running. Can you speak about where you came up with that?

That's one of the central images of my own childhood. I spent a lot of winters in my childhood flying kites with my brother, with my cousins, with friends in the neighborhood. It's what we did in the winter. Schools close down. There was not much to do. There was a movie theater that played the same film for three or four weeks, so you had to find something – we flew kites is what we did. And the way they're shown in the film is really kind of exhilarating that you're up there with the kite. It's quite thrilling the way the special effects guys have pulled that off. Visually, it's pretty breathtaking.

There was a kite master on the set, a guy whose life is – he's a kite fanatic. He's from Afghanistan and he's a master kite flyer himself. He was on the set throughout the shoot in China. He helped choreograph all the kite scenes and he taught the kids how to hold string and how to do it convincingly. A lot of energy went into creating those scenes.

How many years was it from the time you left Afghanistan until you were able to visit again, and what was the most shocking thing you found on returning?

27 years. I left when I was 11. I went back when I was 38. The most shocking thing was actually seeing with my own eyes and walking and feeling with my own hands just the devastating effect of two decades of war. And seeing the people who were affected by it. And seeing the neighborhoods that I knew from the '70s demolished, obliterated essentially. It was quite shocking. It's one thing to see it on TV. It's another thing to actually walk in the streets and see those homes completely razed and imagine what is must have been like the moment a rocket hit that home, who was present, who was inside that home. People would say "There are still bodies underneath those things."

Cinematical: When they signed Marc, did you breathe a huge sigh of relief that you didn't have to think about imagining Michael Bay's The Kite Runner or some other worst-case scenario?

That was never a real fear, because I didn't option the book to people who would hire Michael Bay to direct The Kite Runner. Bill Horberg and Rebecca Yeldham are very literate, well read, smart, eloquent people who have adapted several novels to the screen and haven't gone that route. I enjoyed all three of Bill Horberg's adaptations, The Quiet American, Cold Mountain, and The Talented Mr. Ripley. I thought all were classy production and had a lot of merit, so I didn't really fear that that was going to happen.

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