FROM FLEDGLING MANUSCRIPT TO BESTSELLER TO SCREEN: THE STORY BEHIND "THE KITE RUNNER"
In 2003, Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner came out of nowhere as a debut novel and quickly shot to the top of best-seller lists around the globe, where it still remains four years later. A story suffused with the culture of Afghanistan -- the remote, war-torn country that, for decades, has been seen only as hotspot of global conflict -- it seemed an unlikely candidate for such stratospheric success. Yet, with its universal themes of family bonds, childhood friendship, the courage of forgiveness and the salvation only to be found in love, the story deeply touched people from every cultural and social background.
Written by a physician born in Afghanistan -- who, like his lead character, left Afghanistan for America as a boy and didn't return for decades -- The Kite Runner took readers on a journey, across continents, into one man's quest to right a terrible wrong that haunted him all his life. Deftly weaving the personal with the political, Hosseini forged a tale as rife with suspense as it was with intensity of feeling. Though the story was fictional, Hosseini's intimate knowledge of growing up in Kabul when it was "the pearl of Central Asia," before the Soviet Invasion and the rise of the Taliban, as well as his experiences emigrating as a young man to America, lent his story an authenticity and humanity that deeply affected readers. The novel sold over eight million copies in more than 34 countries, leaping borders with the power of its storytelling.
For Khaled Hosseini, the ripple effect of The Kite Runner's popularity and now the imminent release of the motion picture based on it, have been extremely gratifying. "I'm continually astonished by how people have reacted to my novel," says Hosseini, "but I think it must be because there is a very intense emotional core to this story that people connect with. The themes -- of guilt, friendship, forgiveness, loss, the desire for atonement and to be better than who you think you are - are not Afghan themes but very human experiences, regardless of one's ethnic, cultural or religious background."
It was these themes, long before the book had attained international best-seller status - in fact when it was merely an obscure and as-yet-unpublished manuscript - that drew the attention of producers William Horberg and Rebecca Yeldham, who were previously partnered at DreamWorks SKG. While reading Hosseini's unadorned pages, Horberg and Yeldham realized they were in the midst of something quite extraordinary. "It was one of the most powerful and cinematic pieces of literature that I had ever read. It was magical," says Yeldham. "We were so in love with it that we couldn't imagine it not getting made. It's a story that's told in the most lyrical, evocative and beautiful way, one that lends itself to a visual interpretation; as you're reading, you literally see its events unfold."
Adds Horberg: "Reading The Kite Runner was a wonderful experience. The story has such a strong emotional hook with its central idea that, no matter what you've done in the past, there's a way to be good again. It draws you in as a reader and taps into the secrets and scars that we all have in our history. You go on a journey with these two boys, a journey into a culture, into a family and into redemption for the character of Amir. I found it to be an incredibly moving experience and one that promised a lot of potential as a movie."
Horberg and Yeldham brought the Kite Runner to the attention of Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, who were then beginning their transition from co-heads of production at DreamWorks to independent producers. The filmmakers joined forces to secure the rights to the forthcoming novel and development on the screenplay was begun. For Parkes, the heart of the book lay in the mysterious, albeit fragile, bonds of childhood friendships that are same the whole world over. "I thought right away of my relationship with my best friend when I was 10 or 11 and the kind of private, extended fantasy world young boys occupy in their friendships," reflects Parkes. MacDonald adds, "It is very much about the resiliency of children. There is something about a child's ability to find friendship and adventure in his own private universe with other children, which is so true and so heartbreaking and ultimately gives us hope. And that is the core value that spoke to me in the book."
Meanwhile, the filmmakers enlisted Khaled Hosseini himself as an active partner in transforming the novel into a film, making sure he remained on the inside of the entire creative process. "Khaled was our ambassador into this world which none of us were from," explains Horberg.
With the film in mid-development, Horberg and Yeldham left DreamWorks in 2005. Horberg joined Sidney Kimmel Entertainment (SKE), which has a reputation for working with esteemed filmmaking talent and high quality stories, and Sidney Kimmel, in turn, became an enthusiastic supporter of the project and Horberg's ongoing roles as producer of the film. Jeff Skoll of Participant Productions -- the fast-moving young company whose motto is "changing the world one story at a time" -- was another early and passionate fan of the book, and now joined with SKE as co-financiers.
In the midst of all this, the book burst onto bookstore shelves with an unexpected force, turning the novel into a cultural phenomenon, as it spread like wildfire from the hands of one exhilarated reader to the next. Critics were equally impressed. As award-winning writer Isabel Allende summarized of the novel: "It is so powerful that for a long time everything I read after seemed bland." The filmmakers were at once astonished and thrilled at its sweeping popularity.
"Truthfully I don't think any of us had any suspicion that The Kite Runner would catch on in such a mainstream way," confesses Parkes. "It was a great story that had a heroic, cinematic size to it and dealt with essential themes of redemption and coming to grips with who you really are -- wonderful, classic themes. But to assume that it would become a hit book and then some, and that years later, the environment of American mainstream film would become so open to these kinds of multicultural stories? Nobody could predict that."
FROM INDELIBLE WORDS TO IMAGES: ADAPTING THE KITE RUNNER
Now, with the book having worked its way into the hearts of so many, the producers set out to find a screenwriter who could take the rarely seen world Khaled Hosseini had brought so richly to life on the page and transform that into an epic, cinematic experience, all the while sustaining the uniquely intimate tone of the book.
Horberg and Yeldham brought in screenwriter David Benioff who, as a novelist himself (Benioff made his screenwriting debut with the adaptation of his novel THE 25TH HOUR, directed by Spike Lee), came into the project filled with original ideas about how to morph the 400-page novel into a taut, riveting script and structure it in a vivid new form.
"Everyone was very open to different ideas and angles, but the one commonality we all shared was a desire to do justice to Khaled's beautiful story and to try to retain as much of the book's humanity and spirit as possible," says Benioff. "I always saw this as a story about cowardice and courage, and the journey between them. And also I wanted to make sure it remained a story of Afghanistan, of Afghans, of a people enduring the worst possible times, endless wars and poverty -- yet within that national horror, still finding the possibility of grace, beauty and love."
Benioff utilized Hosseini in myriad ways while creating the adaptation. "Khaled could not have been more generous with his time and expertise, answering all my questions about life in Afghanistan," he comments. "I grew up in New York City and a Kabul childhood was very far from my own experience, yet Khaled clarified any moments I found confusing. More than that, these characters are his babies and Khaled knows them better than anyone, so he was always very good at explaining why a character would or would not do something."
One of the biggest challenges for Benioff was simply carving the sweeping, three-decade-long events of Amir's story into a two-hour motion picture. "Time jumps are difficult to navigate in a movie," explains Benioff, "and because the novel covers almost 30 years, figuring out an efficient screenplay structure wasn't easy. The novel shows Amir at many different ages, but I decided early on that I wanted only two actors playing the role. Any more than that and I think you might lose the connection to this wonderful character. So the screenplay streamlines the novel's narrative - it incorporates almost all of the major beats but simplifies the chronology. Luckily, the heart of Khaled's story is so strong I believe it maintains its power even within the restrictions of space and time of the screenplay format."
Khaled Hosseini was ultimately very impressed with how the screenwriter re-invented his story as a cinematic experience. "My hat is off to David," says Hosseini. "He had a job cut out for him. This is a novel that structurally is a challenge, spanning 30 years in time. There are flashbacks, the characters age, and we move from Kabul as a thriving cosmopolitan city to this basically destroyed landscape that Amir goes back to. But David pulled it off and made it seem very seamless so that when I read the final version of the script, I said 'This is going to be a beautiful movie.'"
Now came the task of finding a director. The producers knew they needed someone with both the cultural sensitivity and the far-reaching imagination to wrap his mind around a story that traverses from Kabul to California, from the shame and devastation of war to the opportunities of starting over in America, from the stultifying effects of violence and intolerance to the triumph of honor and hope.
They chose Marc Forster, largely because he has brought a lyricism and humanity to every film he has made, no matter the genre, ranging from the powerful emotions of MONSTER'S BALL to the enchantment of FINDING NEVERLAND to the inventive comedy of STRANGER THAN FICTION. He had also worked with David Benioff before, on the time-shifting psychological thriller STAY.
"Marc was someone whose work we admired greatly," says William Horberg. "Whatever world he goes into, he always finds characters that audiences understand and relate to deeply. He has a real sense of both beauty and curiosity in his filmmaking. And, because this story was so different than anything he had done before, we felt it would also be a compelling challenge for him."
It quickly became clear that Forster had the deep affinity for the material the producers were seeking. "In his fearless way, Marc had no qualms about making a movie about a culture that is not his own," notes Rebecca Yeldham. "He embraced obstacles that would have unhinged others. And he was able to cut straight to the heart of the story and the reasons why it touched him and so many millions of people."
For Forster, the story of Amir and Hassan's idyllic childhood friendship and the dramatic turn of events that would come to shadow Amir's brand new life in America, was irresistible. "I just fell in love with this story," the director says. "Reading the book was such an emotional and beautiful experience that I knew right away I wanted to be involved. Like MONSTER'S BALL, yet in a very different way, it is a story about breaking the cycle of violence and about the sustaining possibilities for redemption. For me, the challenge would be creating this incredibly epic journey while bringing the audience inside a very intimate story about a few individuals and the profound effect they have on each other's lives. That mix is the real beauty of the novel."
Yet, even Forster was not prepared for how intense an experience making this film would ultimately be, taking him from Europe to Kabul to Pakistan and China on an eye-opening and, at times harrowing, journey that would, in all of its own imagery and emotion, come to inform every frame of the film.
From the beginning, Forster understood that in order to bring the film to life he must penetrate the dense and complex fabric of Afghan culture and experience. As he began preparing the project, he shared his vision of the film with Khaled Hosseini, which helped to forge a great kinship.
"I was very happy to hear that Marc would do everything in his power to make this movie as authentic as possible from a cultural standpoint and that Marc really wanted to show something to the audience that had never been seen before," says Hosseini. "He spoke to me with such passion, integrity and honesty about the book, and he told me how fearful he was of not doing justice to it and me. But I was not worried because I saw how enamored he was with the story, how completely invested in it he was and, watching him on the set, I saw how talented he is."
Says Forster, "David was masterfully able to capture the spirit of THE KITE RUNNER in his adaptation. The main thing was always not to let Khaled down because ultimately it is his vision and, as a director, I wanted to serve the vision of the original author who touched so many people."
FROM ENGLISH TO DARI: MAKING THE KITE RUNNER IN AN AFGHAN TONGUE
While David Benioff was still writing the screenplay, a decision was made to shoot the film in the Dari language, one of two main tongues spoken in Afghanistan. "I felt that shooting the film in any other language other than Dari would be a mistake," says Marc Forster. "If you have kids in 1970s Afghanistan speaking English, it just would not be right. You need that emotional connection to something real."
The decision, though logistically daunting, was celebrated by author Khaled Hosseini. "When Marc said he was going to shoot the film in Dari, it won me over and I said he really means to do well by my book, because it was so important for me that the characters be believable," he says.
Benioff and Forster had extensive discussions about which lines in the film should be spoken in Dari and which in English. Then, when the intricate translations of Benioff's screenplay were completed, they sent the script back to Khaled Hosseini, who lent his own poetic ear to the tweaking of various lines and the adding of various phrases that add the more natural and realistic feeling of a native speaker. The result was a screenplay that is, according to Hosseini, "credible and beautiful Dari." (There are also a few lines in Pashto, a language spoken by the Taliban, and the Pakistani language, Urdu.)
To keep the language faithful to the material once production began, the filmmakers hired a team of native Dari speakers who coached the non-native actors on pronunciation and inflection, and were on set each day to make sure lines were spoken just as they would be in Kabul. On-the-fly translations on the set were handled by Ilham Hosseini, a UC Berkeley Law School student who escaped with her family from Afghanistan - and is also the younger cousin of Khaled Hosseini.
In addition to the native Dari-speaking language and dialect coaches, the production hired several cultural advisors who were on hand throughout the filming to validate the most nuanced details of the film's production. Scores of researchers were also consulted throughout the filmmaking process to ensure the verisimilitude of the film's content and representations.
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
MARC FORSTER (Director)
Prior to the THE KITE RUNNER, his most recent directorial endeavor was the imaginative comedy, STRANGER THAN FICTION. Starring Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson and Queen Latifah, STRANGER THAN FICTION premiered at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival to critical and audience acclaim, culminating in a Golden Globe® nomination for Ferrell.
In 2001, Marc Forster directed MONSTER'S BALL, which was a critical and commercial success, receiving two Oscar® nominations with Halle Berry winning for Best Actress. The film offered a powerful glimpse into the legacies of race, loss and redemption, as well as commanding performances by Berry, Billy Bob Thornton, Heath Ledger, Peter Boyle and Sean Combs. In FINDING NEVERLAND, Forster recreated turn-of-the-century London, crafting the semi-autobiographical story of the inspiring friendship between J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, and the four young boys and single mother who lived next door to him. Starring Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Radha Mitchell, Dustin Hoffman and Julie Christie, "Finding Neverland" was one of the most celebrated films of 2004, touching audiences and critics alike as well as being recognized as Best Film of the Year by the National Board of Review. The film received seven Academy Award® nominations, five Golden Globe® nominations, and 11 BAFTA® nominations, all including Best Picture. Forster himself acquired a Best Director nomination by his peers at the DGA.
Forster's next film was the reality-bending thriller STAY, starring Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts and Ryan Gosling. Forster earlier came to the fore with the award-winning MONSTER'S BALL, which received two Oscar® nominations with Halle Berry winning for Best Actress. The film offered a powerful glimpse into the legacies of race, loss and redemption, as well as commanding performances by Berry, Billy Bob Thornton, Heath Ledger, Peter Boyle and Sean Combs. The seeds of Forster's aesthetic were sown in his first film, EVERYTHING PUT TOGETHER, which he also co-wrote. A psychological horror story, EVERYTHING PUT TOGETHER premiered at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival before earning Forster the Movado Someone to Watch/Independent Spirit Award.
Born in Germany in 1969 and raised in Switzerland, Forster came to the United States in 1990 to attend NYU Film School, graduating in 1993.
He is currently shooting the 22nd James Bond film for Sony in London, which will star Daniel Craig as Bond and is slated for release in November 2008.
DAVID BENIOFF (Screenwriter)
David Benioff worked as a nightclub bouncer in San Francisco, a radio DJ in Wyoming, and an English teacher/wrestling coach in Brooklyn before selling his first novel, The 25th Hour. He later wrote the screenplay for Spike Lee's adaptation starring Edward Norton and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Viking published in 2005 Benioff's book of short stories, When the Nines Roll Over.
His screen credits include TROY, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, and STAY, directed by Marc Forster. Jim Sheridan will commence production in November on Benioff's screenplay BROTHERS, and Hugh Jackman is set to reprise his role as the clawed mutant in Benioff's WOLVERINE. Viking will publish his upcoming novel, City of Thieves, in May 2008.
KHALED HOSSEINI (Novelist)
Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1965. He is the oldest of five children, and his mother was a teacher of Farsi and History at a large girls high school in Kabul. In 1976, Khaled's family was relocated to Paris, France, where his father was assigned a diplomatic post in the Afghan embassy. The assignment would return the Hosseini family in 1980, but by then Afghanistan had already witnessed a bloody communist coup and the Soviet invasion. Khaled's family, instead, asked for and was granted political asylum in the U.S.A. He moved to San Jose, California with his family in 1980. Khaled attended Santa Clara University and graduated from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. From 1996 until December 2004, he had been in practice as an internist. In addition to his writing, Khaled presently is working as a goodwill envoy for UNHRC, the United Nation's refugee agency. He is married and has two children (a boy and a girl, Haris and Farah). The Kite Runner was his debut novel.
Khaled Hosseini's new book, A Thousand Splendid Suns, was published in the spring of 2007 and quickly ascended to the top of the bestseller lists.
FROM LONDON TO KABUL: CASTING THE FIRST-TIME CHILD ACTORS AT THE HEART OF "THE KITE RUNNER"
FROM BOYS TO GROWN-UPS: CASTING THE ADULT LEADS
FROM AFGHANISTAN TO UIGHUR: FILMING A LOST KABUL IN THE PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF CHINA
FROM THE EPIC TO THE INTIMATE: THE DESIGN OF THE KITE RUNNER
THE ART OF ADAPTATION