At first glance, the screenwriter who gave the world Troy wouldn't seem like the natural choice to adapt a literary novel of childhood joy and adult challenges. But David Benioff isn't just the writer behind brawny action films like Troy and the upcoming Wolverine: Origins; he's also a novelist, who adapted his own book for Spike Lee's brilliant, overlooked 25th Hour. After screening The Kite Runner at the closing night of the Mill Valley Film Festival, Benioff spoke with a roundtable of journalists in San Francisco about collaborating with novelist Khaled Hosseini, the challenge posed by certain cultural differences and the combination of brute force and finesse required to fit an epic novel onto film. Cinematical's questions are indicated.
I guess I'll start with the obvious question, which is: Given that this is a film about a culture completely different from our own, how instrumental was it having (author Khaled Hosseini) on-hand to support you?
David Benioff: It was a great help, and I think I got really lucky, because I've had friends working on adaptations where the relationship between the screenwriter and the novelist is ... tense. And sometimes you have a writer who writes a book and sells the film rights and says "Thank you for the money ..." and just doesn't want to be involved -- and sometimes they want to be so involved -- I can think of examples, like the Sahara guy. (Clive Cussler).
But in this case, Khaled (Hosseini) was both very supportive, but very understanding that the movie was going to be very separate from the book. And he was a great resource; I mean, I could do as much research as I wanted and read books about Afghan history and so on, but I'm not from there, I'm not a Muslim, I didn't grow up in Kabul ... and to be able to call Khaled or e-mail him -- it was mostly a lot of late night e-mails -- and then to wake up in the morning and to have a response from him, a very detailed response from him, explaining what the movie theaters were like in Kabul in the '70s, or what the protocol would have been in a certain situation ... it was a great resource. It was incredibly helpful, and I think it made the script much better than it would have been otherwise.
Cinematical: Obviously, you have a very good relationship with Mr. Hosseini -- and this is not asking you to speak ill of the book -- but what in the book made you roll your eyes, thinking "God, I don't know how you bring this to the screen?"
DB: I don't know if there's a moment, particularly, or just the length of certain sections. For me, when I was reading the book, I was completely captivated by the childhood scenes in Kabul and then felt maybe a slight loss of momentum in the American scenes. You know, many of the (American) scenes I actually love -- and many of them are in the movie -- but I felt like I had to compress that. There's no way to keep as much of the early childhood stuff as we did keep from the book and keep as much of the American things without the movie veering into (a length of) three hours and 30 minutes.
So for me, it was really compressing the American scenes in the center section there, and a lot of compression at the end; at the end of the book, after the climactic fight with the Assef in the Taliban compound and they flee into Pakistan -- then a whole other plot starts, where they're trying to deal with immigration, and dealing with an INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) official, and that was never in the script. It was really a decision partly because of time, and partly because I felt like once we had the climax, having another 45 minutes of story time post-climax ... I felt like I would be wriggling in my seat. It just felt like, structurally, it would be a mistake.