Rarely has the race for the screenwriting Oscar seen two stories with parallels as strong as those between “The Kite Runner” and “Atonement.”
The jumping-off point of both stories is a terrible transgressive act by a child. In both films, the wronged parties are condemned to suffer through war and turmoil, while the children who wronged them — both of whom grow up to be writers — become aware of their “crimes” as they mature and must make amends for their wrongs.
“There’s something about doing something wrong as a child that has a particular resonance that runs through your entire life,” says “Atonement” scripter Christopher Hampton. “You do find that, as it were, certain scales fall from your eyes.”
Hampton fell in love with “Atonement” on his first reading of the book and pursued the opportunity to adapt Ian McEwan’s novel for the screen, but was unaware of “The Kite Runner” until much later.
The similarities between the two stories did not go unnoticed by “Kite Runner” author Khaled Hosseini or scripter David Benioff, though. “(Hosseini) was mentioning it even at the time (work began on the script) that it’s an odd connection,” Benioff tells Variety.
In “The Kite Runner,” one young boy, Amir, doesn’t stand up for his friend Hassan as he is raped by older boys. Later Amir falsely accuses Hassan of stealing.
“People would be afraid that Amir’s character was not likable enough,” says Benioff. “I felt great sympathy for him. It’s a terrible transgression and a terrible betrayal, but I understand it.”
So Benioff made a point of resisting notes that suggested young Amir would seem too cold.
“People have asked me ‘Did you think about eliminating the rape scene and just have him be beaten up?’ But I thought that would be bowdlerizing it. You have to feel a sense of dismay at what this child has chosen to do and not do.
“It’s ultimately a story about redemption and it’s hard to have that full redemption unless you see him truly sinning.”
In an odd twist of fate, Hampton had a somewhat similar experience during his own boyhood, an incident he included in his autobiographical stage play “The White Chameleon.”
“At the center of it was a moment where I as a child saw my friend being maltreated by his father and didn’t do anything about it. And that stuck with me.
“If you’re honest (about it), you somehow collude in what’s going on in a way you understand later but not at the time. And that’s what happens in ‘The Kite Runner,’ isn’t it? This boy draws back and becomes part of the persecution.”
One key difference between the stories, though, is that in “The Kite Runner,” the protagonist Amir makes direct amends by journeying to Kabul, at great risk to himself, to rescue Hassan’s son, while in “Atonement,” the budding writer Briony has no way to make such amends to her sister Cecelia and Cecelia’s lover Robbie — except through writing.
“That was a line that wound up on the cutting room floor,” says Hampton, “where Vanessa (Redgrave, as the older Briony), says at the end, ‘I never gave myself anything that I deprived them of.’ You do get a feeling that she sacrificed her life in a way. That was something that was cut because we felt that Vanessa’s face told you that.”
And, as with “The Kite Runner,” the story lets each viewer decide how to react to Briony’s “crime.”
“It’s a genuine misunderstanding,” says Hampton, contrasting Briony’s act with Amir’s lie in “The Kite Runner.” Still, he says, “There are members of the audience who find it unforgivable and would never forgive her, there are some who are more understanding and others who are completely understanding.”