Amir and Hassan don't see it, but they are like the kites launched skyward in Kabul's annual tournament.

In the Afghan capital circa 1978 - before the Soviet invaders and Taliban fundamentalists - they soar high and crash hard, fates tangled up as their kite strings.

The Kite Runner, Marc Forster's wrenching and exhilarating adaptation (by screenwriter David Benioff) of Khaled Hosseini's beloved best seller, is a heartfelt saga of cruelty redeemed by belated love.

In its themes it is kin of Atonement, another excellent literary adaptation now in theaters, and not only because the narrative pivots on a fateful day when the innocents experience an event too intimidating to acknowledge, let alone talk about.

Until that day, Amir (Zekiria Ebrahimi), timid son of a well-to-do intellectual, and Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada), brash son of the household servant, are best friends and boon companions.

In American terms, Hassan is the physically deft jock and Amir the brainiac who regales his friend with heroic stories. Amir's father wishes his son were strong like Hassan; Amir is encouraged in his storytelling by a friend of his father.

Eliciting natural performances from both young actors, Forster subtly suggests other sources of friction between their characters. Amir is Pashtun, member of the dominant and Sunni Muslim tribe, while Hassan is Hazara, and thus Shi'ite.

Not only does Forster get terrific performances from the children, particularly Mahmidzada's Hassan, but he gets a splendid, career-making turn from Homayoun Ershadi as Amir's father, or Baba. (Cineasts will recognize the architect-turned-actor from his work in A Taste of Cherry.)

As the devoutly secular man who has no use for the communists or the mullahs who will alter the political landscape of his country, Baba flees to the United States, Amir in tow.

In San Francisco, the cultured gentleman scrabbles for work in a gas station. This sequence is both every immigrant's story and that of the natural aristocrat who maintains pride and poise no matter his context.

Ershadi is magnificent; less so, Khalid Abdalla as the grown Amir, very handsome and very uncomfortable as the film's mournful-eyed narrator.

In the film's final third, Amir, a published author, is summoned to Pakistan and smuggled into Afghanistan, by now under Taliban tyranny. While this final act, with Western China doubling for Afghanistan, feels rushed and incomplete, its redemptive spirit is undeniably moving.

Whatever our misfortune, The Kite Runner says, sometimes we are fortunate enough to get a second chance to make amends for a first mistake.

The Kite Runner ***1/2

Directed by Marc Forster, written by David Benioff, based on the novel by Khaled Hosseini, distributed by DreamWorks and Paramount Vantage. In English and Dari with English subtitles. With Homayoun Ershadi, Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada, Zekiria Ebrahimi and Khalid Abdalla.

Running time: 2 hours, 2 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (strong thematic material including youth-on-youth rape)

Showing at: Ritz Five and Showcase at the Ritz Center/NJEndText