"The Kite Runner" turns out to be not as dramatic as the story behind the studio's own effort to protect its child stars, both Afghan natives.
The movie is adapted from Khaled Hosseini's widely admired best-seller, an account of the Taliban's crushing takeover of Kabul that includes a scene of one boy raping another.
A version of that scene turns up in the movie, and it's so incendiary to Afghans, so anathema to even the moderate post-Taliban culture of Kabul, that the actors had to be evacuated to the United States out of fear for their safety. It now seems likely the boys will ask for asylum here.
This behind-the-scenes intrigue illustrates how great a chasm still exists between East and West. The cultural mapping of these differences is a great strength of the book, and some of it trickles through to the screen in director Marc Forster's adaptation.
Hosseini's story is built around the friendship of Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) an Afghan boy lucky enough to be a member of one of Kabul's wealthier families, and Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) a servant boy belonging to a mistreated ethnic caste.
It's the kind of innocent boyhood friendship that proceeds heedless of society's taboos, and you can feel how fragile it is. At the same time, you feel its strength - Amir and Hassan are a naturally good team, as we see when they compete in a kite-flying contest that's the Kabul equivalent of an And1 half-court showdown.
The young actors are quite good, as is Homayoun Ershadi as Amir's intellectual father. He's an urbane, literate lover of freedom in a city caught between the polar extremes of the Soviets and the Taliban. One side says you have no soul, while the other claims full custody of it.
He sees no future under the Soviets, and even less of one under the insane backwardness of Taliban rule, so he flees. He winds up in the States, and here is where the movie feels like it slows to a crawl. Life in the Afghan expat community in California is nowhere near as dramatic as life in Kabul, and Khalid Abdalla, who plays Amir as an adult, is not a dynamic screen presence.
Amir's budding romance with an Afghan woman feels airless, and even the drama of his father's declining health fails to stir much emotion.
Most critically, Abdalla fails to convey the torment and shame Amir feels over an incident that coincided with his family's exodus - crucial to the movie's themes of culture and abandonment.
"The Kite Runner" works better when it's given over entirely to action, as it is in the final passages, when Amir returns to Kabul to redeem his terrible childhood mistake. It's like "Atonement," without the narrative trap-door. *