Hampered by a dull leading performance, Marc Foster and screenwriter David Benioff's adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's hugely popular novel skimps on the book's real value — Hosseini's recollection of a modern, progressive Afghanistan and its fate in the hands of foreign invaders and religious fanatics — in favor of bland melodrama and absurd dramatics. San Francisco, 2000. Just as novelist Amir Qidiri (Khalid Abdalla) receives copies of his new book, "A Season for Ashes," at the apartment he shares with his wife (Atossa Leoni), he also receives a phone call from Rahim Khan (Shaun Toub), his late father's friend from the old days in Afghanistan. Rahim, who has been living in Pakistan since the Taliban seized power, is close to death and calling to tell Amir it's time he return home. "There is a way to be good again," Rahim tells him, somewhat enigmatically. In many ways, Rahim was the dad Amir never had. Amir's real father, Baba (Homayoun Ershadi), a wealthy Kabul businessman reduced to working in a California gas station after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, was always distant and disapproving, and Amir grew up fearing that Baba blamed him for the death of his wife in childbirth. Rahim, on the other hand, understood Amir's sensitivity and encouraged his childhood dream of becoming a writer — a profession Baba brushed off as idle storytelling. Now, years after Baba's death, Rahim's comment from halfway around the world cuts Amir to the quick: For 30 years, Amir has been haunted by the childhood betrayal of his closest companion, Hassan. As children back in Kabul, Amir (played in the long flashback that makes up the film's first half by Zekeria Ebrahimi) and Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) are inseparable, despite the fact that Hassan and his father (Nabi Tanha) are servants in Baba's large home. Even more potentially divisive in the rigidly caste-conscious Kabul is the fact that Hassan is an ethnic Hazara and a Shiite Muslim — both discriminated-against minority groups — while Amir and his family are Sunnis and members of the elite Pashtun community. Amir hopes to earn Baba's elusive approval by winning the annual kite tournament in which boys compete against each other, cutting the strings of each others kites by coating their own lines in a mixture of ground glass and paste. Once the cut kites fall to the ground, "kite runners" dash off to retrieve them as trophies, while the last kite left aloft is declared the winner. In the winter of 1978, Amir wins the tournament, but that brief victory quickly turns bitter. When Hassan runs off to collect the opponent's kite, he's cornered in an alleyway by a racist Pashtun bully (Elham Ehsas) and brutally assaulted. Amir watches from a distance, but does nothing. Ashamed of his cowardice, Amir can no longer face his friend, and finally arranges to have him sent away by accusing him of a crime he didn't commit. Now, 30 years later, called back east by Rahim, Amir returns to the scene of his great shame in hopes of somehow making things right. Without Hosseini's evocative descriptions of Kabul in the 1970s and life among Northern California's expatriate Afghan community in the '80s, there's not much to the book's heavy-handed, manipulative and obvious story. Stripped of Hosseini's smooth prose, the tale looks and sounds even clunkier, and the endless coincidences that somehow manage to make things "good again" simply seem preposterous. The film is a telling counterpoint to the concurrently released ATONEMENT — another "prestige" production based on an acclaimed novel — which makes the profound observation that in real life the opportunity to make amends is rare, though the attempt may produce great art. In THE KITE RUNNER, we get neither.