Monday, November 26, 2007

The Kite Runner Controversy

Patty here…

I went to a pre-release screening of The Kite Runner directed by Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland), which will arrive in theaters on December 14. The film is based on the novel of the same name, written by Afghan-American Khaled Hosseini. Since its publication date, The Kite Runner has lived on the New York Times bestsellers list. Despite eight million copies in print worldwide, I’ll admit to being one of the few members of the book-buying public who hasn’t read this novel. That said, there are few movies I see that make me want to read the book. This was one of them.

The Kite Runner is about betrayal and redemption, about getting a second chance to make things right. The action centers on two young boys growing up in Kabul before the Russian invasion of Afghanistan: wealthy, privileged Amir, and Hassan, his best friend, defender, and son of the family’s live-in servant. When courage-challenged Amir witnesses the sexual assault of Hassan by neighborhood bullies, he does nothing to help. In the days that follow, Amir is forced to look into Hassan’s eyes and see his own cowardice. Unable to cope, he falsely accuses Hassan of theft, forcing him out of a job, a home, and Amir’s life. Much of the film is set in Kabul, Afghanistan (using locations in China as stand-ins). The period spans from pre-Russian rule through the Taliban takeover. Most of the dialogue is in Dari (Afghan Persian) with English subtitles.

Here’s a trailer for the movie:

While in line waiting to enter the theater, I heard people chatting about a controversy surrounding the film that had delayed its release for six weeks. I was curious to know more, so this amateur sleuth went home and scoured the Internet for information. According to the New York Times, the brouhaha centers on the scene depicting the rape of Hassan. Family members of the young Afghan actors are afraid that the sexually explicit action will stir religious and ethnic tensions and foster violence against the boys. They wanted the scene stripped from the movie. Paramount Vantage refused, but for the children’s safety, they agreed to temporarily move them out of Afghanistan before the film is released.

The young actor who plays Hassan asserts that he was not informed of the rape scene prior to accepting the role. Director Forster says not so. He argues that all of the principals and their families were briefed and that the scene was twice rehearsed before it was filmed. But even if that wasn’t the case, the movie wrapped a year ago. So I asked myself, why the controversy and why now? The scene in question is not overly graphic, nor it is exploitive. Simply stated, it is essential to bringing the stakes to the level of a compelling story. In the conservative religious milieu that was and is Afghanistan, it helps the viewer understand the gravity of not only the act but also Amir’s spinelessness.

So once again, the age-old question boils down to this: Does an artist cave in to political/religious/cultural correctness by removing or restructuring a controversial scene, or does he stick to his vision and the truth of the story? And how does he know when he has crossed the line?


  1. Thanks so much, Patty, not only for the review, but for the question. What does the artist do? There's a book I read years ago, "My Name Is Asher Lev," by Chaim Potok, about an artist so challenged. It is about a brilliant artist who also happens to be an Hassidic Jew. The only way in which he could depict his mother's situation - always waiting by the window for her husband and son to return - was to show her tied to that window. With her arms opened wide and tied to the window at each side, the scene was that of a crucifixion - and to exhibit the work would mean never seeing his parents again. But he is an artist, and he needs his work to be seen. There was something of the same question in that novel, and in my mind I believe that as artists of whatever stripe we are compelled to speak our truth. That's why we take the risk, why we (as Anne Lamott would say) open the vein. Personally, I think I would draw back if that vein-opening risked a life. I don't know - fortunately, I think I'm living in a place where I don't have to worry about such a thing, and as yet I haven't written anything that pushes the envelope in such a way.

  2. IF: your whole family is rousted in the middle of the night, only to witness the house being burned to the ground, then each family member is then flogged mercilessly and has their tongues ripped out before they have to watch you being put into a burlap sack with a dog and a snake and then hurled into a fast running river, YOU MAY HAVE CROSSED A LINE.

    Patty do you think the scene [which as I understand it is very tame] itself is the issue or is it the concept? Could the story have been conveyed, with the same impact, without that given scene? I heard about all the brouhaha on NPR the week before Thanksgiving.......
    I'm slightly cynical, "controversy sells;" let's just see how well.....perhaps there'll be people like yourself who will bother to get the genuine article, the original novel.

    Hope you had a fantastic Thanksgiving,Go-Lo.


  3. I'd say that's one question, but the elephant in the room is why and how we became so distracted with stupidity in Iraq (one of the most westernized nations) to start a war there, thus allowing the Taliban to re-emerge and begin to seize power in Afghanistan.

  4. Jon, I think the scene is tame because I've seen so many more graphic movies. The novel has been around for a while for everybody to read, but the parents fear that when the masses see the pirated DVDs, they will think it's real. Not much faith in the Afghan populace, but that's another story. I hope you got your T-day fill of turkey and football.

    Leigh, I was thinking the same thing when I was writing the post. If only, eh?

  5. Thanks, Our J. As writers there are a host of issues to contemplate before setting words on the page, including whether to use bad language, adverbs, and adjectives. So many things to think about...

  6. I wonder how "Brokeback Mountain" did at the Kabul Multiplex.

  7. I think it can become a constant struggle. If you write a powerful scene, with at least some roots in reality, a personal experience, you have to wonder--will others recognize this?

    And what would the ramifications be for the other person? Could there a vengeful, even violent person peripherally involved? or might the other person be ostracized by all that they know?

    Indeed, even in shifting plot elements to cloud recognition, one is left with the truth. That you are writing of an intensely controversial issue, and to do so betrays even the unspoken confidence of other parties involved.

    That probably makes no sense whatsoever.

  8. Paulie, you are HILARIOUS.

    And Jeff, it makes sense but I'm not sure why. Hmmm.

  9. Jon brings up the pertinent point here; are you risking your life or someone else's?

    Asher Lev made a choice that affects him. The producer is faced with making a choice that affects others.

    Those issues determine where the line is drawn.

  10. The Multiplex is in Wazi. In Kabul, it's called the Ali Baba's Cavern 17...from what I hear, the movie had some rewrites and was retitled Goatback Mountain......"I sure wish I could quit you...Allah willing...."


  11. Jon's "...Allah willing" kicker broke me up.

    Who said comedy writers were on strike?

  12. James O, as always, the voice of reason.

    Let's enroll Jon in Last Comic Standing. Yaaaaaay!!!

  13. I think we all have to be true to our stories and ourselves. If something we write is disturbing but pertinent to what we're trying to say, I see no need to censor ourselves to try to appeal to the masses, for then we become sheep.

    I've had many readers email me about my protagonist's liberal use of four letter words. But to take them out would not be true to her character, so I do risk losing readers who find it offensive. But I have just as many readers write me without mentioning the language but who say they enjoy the books.

    As writers we should take risks, we should push the envelope, we need to engage our readers and make them think. That is what literature has done for centuries.

  14. Karen, the four-letter word debate rages on. I was recently chatting with a bookstore owner who has customers who return books when they encounter "bad" words. I imagine there are many people like that.

  15. Paul --

    I thought we had a badly cheesesteak-overdosed coach here in Philadelphia. (Andy Reid) But this guy from Kansas takes the cake, or at least it looks as though he did. He looks as though he needs to be trucked onto the field. Look at the video. He should be called for a 15-yard flagrant face mask.
    -- Bill

  16. It's a bit late to be joining this conversation, but I happened finally to read the Kite Runner (so the media's coverage of the controversy wouldn't throw any other spoilers my way) and today decided to see what had happened to the actors. I didn't manage to find that, but found your blog instead. And I think that what's missing from the discussion are the particular circumstances surrounding the making of the film. In order to make it more 'realistic' or 'authentic,' the producers apparently recruited regular Afghans—not actors, just ordinary people—to be in the film. One of the things the boy who plays Hassan has been quoted as saying is that he fears his friends will shun him because they'll believe _he_ was raped, not his character. And I think that by choosing to cast ordinary people in these roles, the producers did blur fact and fiction. They could have hired Hollywood actors. They could have hired Bollywood actors. People whose families would not have been at risk because they played controversial scenes or characters in a film—because that's their job. But the producers went for realism, without thinking through what the consequences might be for the people concerned. To say that the book has been out for ages and that people could have read it I think doesn't take into account the conflict and poverty and illiteracy and chaos in Afghanistan in recent years. And I think this is, anyway, the responsibility of the filmmakers, not the Afghan public. Hire consultants, do surveys, find out what people think about the lines between fact vs. fiction in a tribal society. It seems to me that what Afghans said about the film could all have been gleaned from conversations, real questions being asked, before the filming began.