Setting: San Francisco, 2000
The film opens with an Afghan-American writer Amir Qadiri and his wife, Soraya, who are watching children flying kites at a bayside park. When they arrive home, Amir finds waiting for him packages of his new novel, A Season for Ashes, which has just been published. Soraya refers to the book as Amir’s “baby,” hinting at the couple’s inability to have a child of their own. Amir then receives an unexpected call from an old friend of his father’s, Rahim Khan, who is living in Peshawar, Pakistan.
Flashback: Kabul, 1978–79
Ten-year-old Amir is the son of a wealthy man, known locally by the honorific title “Agha Sahib.” (Amir refers to him as “Baba,” meaning “father.”) Agha Sahib, a philanthropist and iconoclast, is a Pashtun living in Kabul. Amir’s best friend Hassan is the son of the Agha Sahib’s Hazara servant, Ali. Amir participates in the sport of kite fighting, popular among the boys of Kabul. Two kite flyers compete to cut each other’s kite strings, the defeated kite becoming the prize of the winner. Hassan serves as Amir’s spool-holder and “kite runner,” who retrieves the defeated kite. Hassan has the ability to determine where the loose kite will land without watching its course through the air. Hassan has deadly aim with his slingshot, and one day on Hassan’s birthday, Amir gives Hassan a slingshot made in the United States. Hassan pledges his loyalty to Amir, swearing that he would eat dirt if Amir so asked.
Amir also is a writer, and he often reads to the illiterate Hassan. Hassan particularly likes to hear the story of Rostam and Sohrab from the Persian epic Shahnameh. Baba disapproves of his son’s bookishness, and complains to his friend and business associate Rahim Khan that the boy doesn’t stand up for himself, letting Hassan fight his battles for him. Amir overhears this conversation and Rahim Khan goes to Amir’s room to assure him that his father loves him. Amir says that he believes that his father resents him because Amir’s mother died in childbirth. Rahim Khan also encourages Amir to keep writing.
Amir and Hassan are often bullied by an older Pashtun boy, Assef and Assef’s two friends, who harbor ethnic hatred against Hazaras. Cornered one day by the three boys, Hassan protects Amir by threatening Assef with his slingshot. The bullies flee, but Assef promises revenge.
Amir then enters the citywide kite-fighting contest, while his father, (who was a champion in his youth) and Rahim Khan, watch proudly from a balcony. Amir then breaks his father’s record of 14 “kills”, and Hassan sprints off to “run” for the last defeated kite. After Hassan has been gone for some time, Amir decides to look for him, and finds Hassan trapped in a dead end by Assef and his two friends. However, Amir does not assist Hassan because he is too afraid to intervene, and decides instead to watch the events unfold while concealed. Assef then demands Amir’s kite as a payment for letting Hassan go and Hassan refuses, asserting that the kite rightfully belongs to Amir. Assef then beats and rapes Hassan in retaliation, while his friends hold the boy down. Disgusted, Amir flees the scene, and when Hassan emerges bleeding, Amir pretends not to know what has happened. Unfortunately, Amir is wracked with guilt over the next few weeks and avoids Hassan, who spends all his free time in bed. Ali and Baba then question Amir to find out why Hassan is acting so strangely, but Amir feigns ignorance about what actually happened to Hassan.
One day, Amir walks to the tree where he often read stories to Hassan, and finds Hassan teaching himself to read. Angry, Amir accuses Hassan of cowardice, and throws pomegranates at him, while daring Hassan to strike him. Hassan respectfully refuses, and instead picks up a pomegranate which he smashes into his own face. Later on, Amir asks his father if he has ever considered replacing his servants Ali and Hassan. Baba then angrily rebukes Amir, declaring that since Ali has worked for the family for over 40 years, Ali and Hassan will always stay with them.
Baba then throws a massive party for Amir’s birthday, but Amir is unable to enjoy it, due to memories of what happened to Hassan. Assef also attends with his father, and Amir is forced to accepts his enemy’s gift and well-wishes. Rahim Khan presents Amir with a blank book for his stories, and senses something is amiss. He assures Amir that Amir can tell him anything. However the next day, instead of telling the truth, Amir decides to plant his new wristwatch, a birthday present from his father, under Hassan’s pillow, and tells everyone that Hassan stole it. Hassan is confronted by Amir’s father, and instead of professing innocence, he falsely confesses to stealing it. Although Hassan is quickly forgiven, his father lets Agha Sahib know that he and his son can no longer work for him, and much to Baba’s distress, they pack their belongings and leave.
In June 1979, the Soviet Union militarily intervenes. Agha Sahib leaves his house in the care of Rahim Khan and flees to Pakistan with his son. They travel by truck with other refugees and, along the way, they are stopped by a Soviet Army private, who demands sex with a young wife and mother who is among the refugees. Amir’s father intervenes, daring the soldier to shoot him, but the situation is defused when the soldier’s superiors appear. The husband of the young wife thanks Agha Sahib, who tells the husband that no thanks is necessary. Later, the refugees are transferred into the empty belly of an oil truck in order to be effectively smuggled across the border undetected. Amir is frightened by their circumstances, and Agha Sahib comforts him by having Amir recite poems.
Flash Forward: Fremont, California, 1988
Baba runs a service station and operates a stall at a weekly flea market. Amir earns a degree at a local community college, and Baba, though disappointed that Amir wants to be a writer rather than a physician, says that Amir can earn money by working with him.
One day at the flea market, Amir’s father introduces him to General Taheri, another Pashtun and a former officer in the Afghan army. In passing, Amir meets Taheri’s daughter, Soraya, and Baba notices that Amir finds her attractive. Later, Amir gives Soraya a copy of one of his stories for her to read, but the General, who has little regard for artists, takes the story from Soraya, tosses it aside, and speaks dismissively to Amir.
Soon after, Baba is diagnosed with lung cancer, and he becomes gravely ill. Baba refuses to stay at the hospital and wishes to live his last days at home. After Amir brings him home, he asks his father to ask General Taheri for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Taheri agrees, but Amir’s father tells him that Soraya wants to speak with him. On a chaperoned stroll, Soraya reveals that when the Taheris were living in Virginia, she ran away with a Pashtun man and lived with him until her father came to retrieve her. Soon after, the Taheris moved to California to flee the gossip surrounding them. Amir is shocked, but still pledges his love, and they marry. Baba dies soon afterward.
Flash Forward, 2000
Rahim Khan persuades Amir to visit him in Pakistan. He tells Amir that the situation is bad, but that Amir has an opportunity to “be good again.” Amir cancels his book tour and goes to Peshawar. Rahim Khan, who is dying, tells Amir that after several unsuccessful stints with caretakers at Baba and Amir’s home, which Rahim Khan had been looking after, he had asked Hassan to return, which Hassan did, with his wife and son. Later, Rahim Khan had to flee to Pakistan when his own health deteriorated and the Taliban took over power after the civil war. But Hassan and his family remained in the home. One day, the Taliban appeared at the house and demanded that Hassan vacate the premises, declaring that no Hazara could be in legitimate possession of the house. Hassan refused to surrender the house, and the Taliban executed him in the street, then also killed his wife. Hassan’s son, Sohrab, was taken to an orphanage. Rahim Khan urges Amir to return to Kabul to find Sohrab and give him a letter written by Hassan, who had taught himself to read and write. Amir resists until Rahim Khan reveals that Hassan was not really Ali’s biological son. Rahim Khan says that Amir’s father, Agha Sahib, had had an affair with Ali’s wife and was the true biological father of Hassan, as Ali was infertile.
Amir agrees to go to Kabul, accompanied by a driver, Farid, who helps him don a disguise with a fake beard and negotiate the Taliban-controlled city. Amir and Farid go to the orphanage where Sohrab was taken and learn that Sohrab was taken away by a Taliban official who occasionally takes away young girls or boys. They are told that they can meet the Taliban official at a soccer/football match in Ghazi Stadium. Amir and Farid attend the match, where they witness the Taliban stoning adulterers at half-time. Amir manages to get an appointment to see the Taliban official.
After arriving at the Taliban official’s house, Amir is surprised to find that the assistant of the official is actually Assef, who recognizes Amir immediately, even with the fake beard. Assef presents Sohrab as his dance boy. Assef agrees to let Sohrab go, but he begins to beat Amir as “payment.” In the confusion, Sohrab is able to pull out his slingshot—the same slingshot that Amir had given to Hassan when they were boys—and shoots Assef in the eye. Sohrab and an injured Amir manage to escape through a window and flee in Farid’s car.
When they get back to Peshawar, they find that Rahim Khan has died, but he has left a letter for Amir. The next morning, Sohrab has disappeared. Amir desperately searches for Sohrab in the city, ending up following a boy to a mosque. When Amir returns to Rahim’s apartment, he finds Sohrab waiting for him in the stairway. Sohrab reveals that Assef would rape him before morning prayers and that he’d left because he didn’t want his abuser to “get him” anymore. Amir assures Sohrab that that will not happen again.
Back in San Francisco, Amir introduces Sohrab to Soraya, and the couple welcomes Sohrab into their home. Later, Amir’s father-in-law General Taheri demands to know why they have taken in “that Hazara boy.” Amir reveals that Sohrab is his half-brother’s son and stands up to his father-in-law to demand respect for the boy. The film ends with Amir teaching Sohrab how to fly kites and volunteering to act as Sohrab’s “runner.” As Amir runs off to fetch the defeated kite, he repeats, to Sohrab, the words Hassan had said to Amir when they were boys: “For you, a thousand times over.”