Kites fly high over the San Francisco Bay and Kabul (okay, China), but not much else soars in Marc Forster’s flaccid adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s vivid 2002 novel, which covers three decades of Afghanistan’s misery under serial totalitarian rule. Arriving on the heels of Atonement, The Kite Runner tells a parallel, if far more potboiling, tale of family secrets, betrayal, cowardice and making amends. Hosseini is an instinctive and unpretentious storyteller whose direct prose, transparent plot symmetries and exotic locales have made him a middlebrow unifier of reading publics high and low. Add to all that his tactful tiptoeing around the United States’ role in arming the Taliban in Afghanistan, and you’ve got yourself a runaway American best-seller.

So you’d think Forster, who made the admirably strange and lively Stranger Than Fiction, would seize the day and all manner of audience demographics with the colorful movie equivalent of a page turner. Instead, armed with a capably hands-off screenplay by David Benioff, he’s made a drama as bland and beige as its tasteful palette, whose pacing wouldn’t look out of place in the Sunday-night slot on PBS. It doesn’t help that the central character, Amir, an expatriate Afghan writer, is played with dour lack of expression by Egyptian-born actor Khalid Abdalla, more forcefully seen taking down that doomed plane in Paul Greengrass’ United 93. True, Amir has a dark secret for which he can’t forgive himself, but that’s no reason to mope around Northern California like Eeyore on a rainy day, especially when your first novel has just come out, you’ve married the lovely and supportive Soraya (Atossa Leoni), and even your hard-to-please father (Iranian actor Homayoun Ershadi, who played the would-be suicide in Abbas Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry) has come around nicely.

Indeed, The Kite Runner only wakes up, and then just a little, on its trips back to Kabul, where the close friendship between two motherless little boys — the privileged, secular Amir (played as a child by Zekeria Ebrahimi) and his houseboy’s saintly son, Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) — withers on the vine due to jealousy, a long-buried secret, and a predatory act that underscores the internal ethnic frictions that plagued Afghanistan even before Russian tanks rolled in. You can’t fault Forster’s efforts to honor his subject — the dialogue is in Dari, an Afghan dialect, and the boys, both played by kids found in Kabul, make a soulfully appealing pair. But the care he has taken to respect local culture drains even the final act — when Amir returns to Kabul to atone for his sins and gets beaten within an inch of his life — of the novel’s propulsive momentum.

I won’t deny that, along with Michael Winterbottom’s In This World and a slew of documentaries about the plight of child soldiers, laborers, amputees and refugees, The Kite Runner grieves potently for the most vulnerable casualties of our savagely warring world. But the movie’s most powerful drama has unfolded offscreen, with Paramount pulling all possible strings to get the boys who play young Amir and Hassan out of Afghanistan before the mullahs get to them. Though the publicity value of their arrival in the United Arab Emirates the week before the film’s release will be lost on no one, I doubt that the studio’s efforts were cynically motivated or that fears of reprisal by the boys’ families were unfounded.

The threat to the boys’ well being and the plot of The Kite Runner turns on two unspeakable acts of homosexual child exploitation. The twisted sexuality that lies beneath most forms of extreme fundamentalism makes both the novel and the movie brave, if weirdly partial, in telling it like it is. In the teeth of the worst that the Taliban can do, Amir experiences, of all things, a religious conversion; for a different response, see the excellent upcoming Persepolis. And like Hosseini’s novel, the movie is all too circumspect about America’s role in making Afghanistan the mess it is today. For that, see Mike Nichols’ upcoming, and far more entertaining, Charlie Wilson’s War.

THE KITE RUNNER | Directed by MARC FORSTER | Written by DAVID BENIOFF, based on the novel by KHALED HOSSEINI | Produced by WILLIAM HORBERG, WALTER F. PARKES, REBECCA YELDHAM and E. BENNETT WALSH | Released by Paramount Classics | ArcLight Hollywood, ArcLight Sherman Oaks, The Grove, AMC Century 15

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