The true Afghan history that inspired 'The Kite Runner' book, movie, and play
The stage adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's novel is playing a limited Broadway engagement.
Khaled Hosseini's moving, expansive novel The Kite Runner has been adapted into a play and is currently running on Broadway. It spans two countries, Afghanistan and the United States, and two decades. It is about the deep friendship between two friends, Amir and Hassan, which is torn apart and then put back together after many years.
The story, though fully original, pulls from many sources of inspiration. Hosseini, himself an Afghan American writer, pulls from his own experiences moving from country to country. He sets his story against the backdrop of 20th-century Afghan history, when the country was on the brink of war. As the story got adapted from a novel into a book and play, some storytelling elements changed, but this context still informs the compelling journey of Amir, who takes a dangerous trip back to his home country long after becoming a refugee.
The Kite Runner is currently running at the Hayes Theater. Below, read more about the novel, and how it became an Oscar-nominated film and a play that's been produced worldwide.
What is The Kite Runner about?
The Kite Runner begins in Afghanistan and tells the tale of two boys: Amir and Hassan. Amir's family is wealthy while Hassan's family is poor — Hassan's family works for Amir's as servants. But, as the boys are the same age, they grow up together and become close friends.
Pivotally, Hassan acts as Amir's kite runner during kite-flying competitions (a kite runner picks up the fallen, defeated kites). But when Amir betrays Hassan following a crucial contest, it ends their friendship, and Amir only gets the chance to make things right decades later. The Kite Runner is also about redemption, forgiveness, and the sometimes fraught relationship not only between friends, but also between fathers and sons — Amir's need for his father's approval is another recurring motif in the novel.
The Kite Runner is the first novel by Khaled Hosseini, released in 2003. It wasn't an instant hit, but a year after publication, The Kite Runner became a popular book club novel and eventually spent 101 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It remains Hosseini's best-known book; he has since released two other novels, A Thousand Splendid Suns and And the Mountains Echoed. All his work is about the Afghan experience and incorporates Afghan history.
The Afghan history behind The Kite Runner
The Kite Runner spans over two decades and takes place during pivotal points in Afghanistan's history. First, some background: For most of the 19th and early 20th century, Afghanistan was at war with Britain, who wanted to annex the country. In 1921, Afghanistan was finally an independent nation, a monarchy called the Kingdom of Afghanistan.
The Kite Runner begins during that period of peace. It opens in 1973 in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, during the final months of Afghanistan's monarchy under Mohammed Zahir Shah. That same year, Zahir Shah's cousin, Mohammed Daoud Khan, staged a coup d'état while Zahir Shah was in Italy. Zahir Shah abdicated and Afghanistan became the Republic of Afghanistan, with Daoud Khan as prime minister. The new Republic was strongly allied with the Soviet Union.
But the Republic was short-lived. In 1978, Daoud Khan was killed in a communist coup. Nur Mohammad Taraki, under the Afghan Communist Party, took over as president. The coup was not well-received, and there were numerous revolts in the country from groups opposed to Afghanistan's relationship with the Soviet Union.
This all came to a head in 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, leading to a decade-long Soviet-Afghan War. During this time, over four million Afghans fled the country. In The Kite Runner, Amir and his father Baba are among them: They leave Afghanistan in 1981, eventually settling in the United States.
In 1988, the Soviet Union and the United States both agreed to no longer interfere in Afghanistan (the U.S. provided weapons to Afghan forces during the war). But Afghanistan soon fell into a civil war as different factions fight to take control of the country. This splintering leads to the rise of the Taliban, who gather supporters with the promise of peace. The Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996. The Taliban promoted a fundamentalist view of Islam, most notably opposing women's rights; under the Taliban, women are not allowed to hold jobs or be outside alone.
This new regime is the backdrop of the second half of The Kite Runner. Amir goes back to Afghanistan in 2001 to finally redeem himself for betraying Hassan, and he witnesses the deteriorating state of his home country under Taliban rule.
How Khaled Hosseini's life inspired The Kite Runner
Like Amir, Hosseini was also born in Kabul, and his family immigrated to the United States during the Soviet-Afghan War. The family eventually settled in San Jose, which is also where The Kite Runner play later premiered. He was first inspired to write The Kite Runner after seeing a news headline about the Taliban banning kite flying; Hosseini was working as a doctor at the time.
Commenting on why his novel became so popular, Hosseini said in 2007, "Because the themes of friendship, betrayal, guilt, redemption, and the uneasy love between fathers and sons are universal and not specifically Afghan, the book has reached across cultural, racial, religious, and gender gaps to resonate with readers of various backgrounds. I think people respond to the emotions in this book.
"There is also, of course, international interest in Afghanistan, given the events of 9/11 and the war on terror. For many readers, this book is really the first window into that culture."
The Kite Runner makes no mention of 9/11 or America's subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, though. Instead, the novel focuses on the lives of regular Afghans as they try to survive against the tumultuous waves of war and history, which is arguably why it has gripped readers worldwide.
The Kite Runner goes from book to film
Following the novel's momentous debut, talks quickly turned to adapting The Kite Runner into a feature film. The Kite Runner movie was released in 2007, directed by Marc Forster (of Monster's Ball and Finding Neverland). Because of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, it was too dangerous to shoot the film in the country, so it was primarily shot in China. In the U.S. the film received positive reviews and earned an Academy Award nomination.
In Afghanistan, the reception was different. The Kite Runner was banned there, with officials saying it portrayed the country's different ethnic groups in a negative light. Afghanistan is home to many ethnic groups, with the largest group being the Pashtuns. In The Kite Runner, Amir is Pashtun, while Hassan is Hazara, the third-largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Amir doesn't intervene in a racially motivated attack on Hassan, which causes the rift between the friends.
This portrayal of interethnic conflict made The Kite Runner a controversial story in Afghanistan. Afghanistan's deputy minister of the Ministry of Information and Culture said in 2008, "We have difficulties in Afghan society, and if this film is shown in the cinemas, it is humiliating for one of our ethnic groups." The Afghan boys who starred in the film had to leave the country because of their work on The Kite Runner.
Despite the ban, The Kite Runner film was still distributed illegally in Afghanistan.
How The Kite Runner play makes the story its own
Though they were both released around the same time, The Kite Runner play was actually in development before the film. In 2009, Matthew Spangler's theatrical adaptation of The Kite Runner had its world premiere in San Jose, California. It has since had numerous productions worldwide, including in London's West End, though it has never been performed in Afghanistan. The Broadway production is being helmed by British director Giles Croft, who directed its San Jose premiere and its multiple productions in the U.K.
Spangler and Hosseini both lived in San Jose. They met for the first time at a Starbucks in 2005 and worked together to adapt the novel. Spangler described the novel as "Shakespearean" in its scope and complexity; ultimately, he and Croft distilled Hosseini's decades-spanning story into a 2.5-hour play.
In adapting it, Spangler reconfigured it as a "memory play" with Amir as the narrator. This means that Amir opens the play as an adult, and then flashes back to his childhood in Kabul, and his betrayal of Hassan. In the film, different actors played Amir at different ages, but in the Broadway production, 44-year-old actor Amir Arison, of NBC's The Blacklist, portrays Amir as both a boy and an adult.
"Everything we see on stage is not 'reality'; it's set in Amir's memory," said Spangler. This means that unlike the movie, there is no attempt to literally depict Afghanistan. Instead, the set is bare aside from a cityscape backdrop of Kabul and some projections, and the audience is invited to fill in the scenic details for themselves, based on Amir's words (similar to a novel): "So you could think of this stage as representing the images in Amir's mind, not Afghanistan."
The Kite Runner is now being produced after the American invasion and recent withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the reemergence of the Taliban. This is leading to a new generation of Afghan refugees, whom Amir represents.
Talking to the New York Times, Arison said he hopes audiences are aware that "through an individual story, we do not forget that history is repeating itself." Despite their differences, the book, film, and play share a lasting sociopolitical relevance and an equally poignant story of one man finding redemption and peace even as the world around him falls into turmoil.
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