The Kite Runner: Matthew Spangler Interview

24/04/2013

The Kite Runner is a powerful story of guilt and redemption, set against the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban. The best-selling novel was written by Khaled Hosseini and has been adapted into a film and now an award-winning stage play. Nottingham Playhouse is hosting the UK premiere and playwright Matthew Spangler talks to Adrian Bhagat about the challenges of adapting such a popular novel...


The Kite Runner - Illustration by Cameron Bain

The Kite Runner - Illustration by Cameron Bain
 

What inspired you to adapt The Kite Runner for the stage?
I read The Kite Runner in 2005, two years after it came out, and I thought right away it could make a great play. It’s such a dramatic and epic story with compelling characters. Both I and the author, Khaled Hosseini, live in the San Francisco Bay Area and we have a mutual friend so I asked for an introduction. We met up and I laid out my ideas for a stage play. The first production was at San Jose State University, where I teach, with a cast of student actors whom I directed myself.

You’ve adapted many literary works for the stage. What attracted you to this work?
I teach courses on adapting literature – novels, short stories, poems, letters - for the stage. I also teach about the theatre of immigration – how the immigrant experience has been represented in plays. My original attraction to The Kite Runner was that it includes an immigrant story about a family who move from Afghanistan to the US, specifically to the San Francisco Bay area. I thought that would be an interesting section to study with my students in class. When I started to adapt the novel I realised there was so much more there. It’s packed full of complex themes and issues, any one of which is worthy of a stage play. It’s about class, a father and son relationship, two best friends, a love story, and most of all it’s about redemption. The play is a plea from the main character for forgiveness for the terrible thing he did when he was younger and the story of how he has tried to set that right in his adult life.



There must be a high expectation when adapting such a successful novel. Were you nervous about how fans of the book would react?
There are so many fans and they each have their own sacred bits from the novel, so there is just no way everyone is going to be entirely happy with the adaptation. I was more concerned that Khaled felt the stage play was an accurate representation of the novel. Fortunately, we were able to meet and discuss the adaptation and he was very supportive. I started writing it in 2006 and he made comments on some early drafts of the script and attended the student production I directed, as well as rehearsals for the first professional production in 2009. So, by the time the play was in front of audiences, Khaled and I had been discussing it for three years, and I felt like we were on the same page.

Was it necessary to make changes to the plot to fit around a stage or to the length of a play?
It’s such an epic novel and I imagine it would take around fifteen hours to read it aloud from front to back. The play is only two and a half hours long (including intermission) so there are quite a few changes to the plot and characters. But the trick with adaptations is to make these changes in a way that nobody notices, and to have audiences see the play and say how closely it resembles the novel. That’s the goal, anyway.

A key moment in the book is the rape scene. As the writer, did you have to consider how that could be represented sensitively on stage?
Very much so. It’s a delicate scene for a number of reasons. First, because so much of what follows in the story happens because of that scene, the brutality needs to be rendered powerfully enough that it remains memorable. But culturally, it’s tricky. You can push the scene too far so that it offends either Afghan or Western sensibilities in a way that the offence trumps the dramatic purpose. That’s not desirable. So the scene needs to be done just right - brutal and memorable, but not offensive.

The Kite Runner - Illustration by Cameron Bain

The Kite Runner - Illustration by Cameron Bain


Were you surprised by how successful the play was in the US and Canada?
I don’t know, but I am touched every time audiences seem genuinely moved by the play. I think the story works well on stage. Ultimately, this is a story in which the main character (Amir) seeks redemption for a terrible thing he did as a child, which led to a series of increasingly tragic events.  There is something inherently dramatic about this set-up on stage. The performance of the play is also an epic act of storytelling on the part of the actor who plays Amir as well as the ensemble. When we get to the end of the performance and we realise that this group of people has just told us this complicated, epic and, at times, harrowing story. It’s nothing short of amazing.

Have you changed the play at all for its UK production?
I changed a line here or there and made one big change that amounted to taking a central
character out of the first act of the play. So it’s fair to say that the UK production will stage a
somewhat new version of The Kite Runner.

Any plans to adapt Hosseini’s other novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns?
I would very much like to. No doubt it would make a powerful story on stage, but the rights have been purchased by a film company, so there probably won’t be a stage play anytime soon. I’m writing two other plays right now that I have commissions for and my newest finished play, Tortilla Curtain, based on the novel by TC Boyle, recently had its world premiere in San Diego. That will be performed by the Arizona Theatre Company this year and depicts the tension between two undocumented migrants from Mexico and the members of a gated community outside Los Angeles that they settle near.

The Kite Runner is showing at Nottingham Playhouse from Friday 26 April - Saturday 18 May.

Nottingham Playhouse website

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