Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Adaptation Interview: Chris Keaton

In the past several weeks on SelfScribes, I've interviewed writers who have adapted their own writing into a different format, so it's only fitting to get the perspective of a writer who has worked with material written by someone else. Chris Keaton discovered Annemarie Bogart's short story What's Your Poison? and turned it into a short script, which has subsequently been made into a short film. Read on for my interview with Chris, as well as excerpts from the short script and short story. A link to the short film's website appears at the end of the post.

Q: How did you discover the short story What's Your Poison??

Chris Keaton: Honestly, I posted to a writing board on ( and asked if anyone wanted their short stories adapted. I received a few interested parties, frankly I got a lot. This was the one that I felt had the most potential for adaption. Almost everything works in a short story, but not everything works on the screen. For example budget is a big factor in films. A dragon spitting flames is perfectly fine in your short story, but would cost way to much for a short film. This story, once adapted, wouldn't cost the producer an arm and a leg.

Q: Do you have any personal connection to Annemarie Bogart? Are you a fan of her work?

CK: I never knew Annemarie until she sent me her story. She is very a talented writer.

Q: What did you like best about adapting the story?

CK: I like the challenge of converting an authors vision to a visual medium and adjusting the story to fit what is expected from a film.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of adapting?

CK: For me it is respecting the material. A lot of adaptations take far too many liberties with the source material. Often changes are required, but I want to make sure the tone and core of the story remains intact. If I can't do that I might as well write an original story.

Q: Which do you prefer: creating original stories or adapting?

CK: I enjoy both. They have their own challenges. With adaptations you must keep the core of the original work, add where needed to keep appropriate arcs and beats, while never losing that feel the original material gives you. 

Writer Bio: Chris Keaton is an Air Force veteran living with his wife and two daughters in sunny Arizona.  His main writing passion is screenwriting, but does love diving into prose. Several of his screenplays have been filmed. Currently he has two feature films in production. To learn more about Chris and his projects, check out his website:
Prolific Chris also has a novel soon to be released. Visit the promo site at

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Chris's scene is an excellent example of the process of adapting. The script excerpt shows how Chris had to convey Brett's desperation to save Melanie, without saying so outright like in prose. Writers also have to make decisions when turning prose into dialogue. The "hefty sum" mentioned in the short story prose becomes the specific "two thousand dollars" in the script dialogue.

The excerpt from the short story (below the script scene) is the very beginning of the story. The writer has the ability to inform the reader about Melanie's health in the prose. However, a script must show, not tell, these details. Therefore, Chris added a scene before Brett visits the Chinese medicine shop that shows the doctor telling Brett that there's nothing more that modern medicine can do to help Melanie. Brett then takes a walk, which leads to this...

Excerpt from What's Your Poison? short script
by Chris Keaton

Please note: Any screenplay format that looks slightly "off", such as how the dialogue is centered, is due to limitations of the blog format,  not Chris's original script.


Brett shuffles off the busy main street down a side alley. The noise of the bustling city fades away.

He looks up at the sky his eyes red. Brett looks back down and notices a small chipped sign that hangs from rusted chains.

The sign reads ‘Chinese Herbals – Natural Healing.’ A small breeze swings the sign with a SQUEAK.

Below the sign is a picture window filled with jars and boxes of herbs and powders.

He peers into the shop, but he can’t see past the display.
Brett moves to the door, but hesitates. He reaches out.


The door swings open. Chimes TINKLE.

Candles placed around the cluttered space flicker from the breeze whipping through the open door.

Brett steps in and the door closes its chimes RING.

He shuffles along a shelf covered in jars. Each jar filled with various shapes. Painted in red on the jars is the items name in both Chinese characters and English. ‘Myrrh’,‘Eyebright’, ‘Mullein’, ‘Yarrow’, etc.

Brett’s lips tighten. He’s has no idea what he is doing.

A gravely voice startles him.

What’s your poison?

Brett turns from the shelf.

The OLD LADY (80s white) stands behind a wooden counter. Long white hair hangs over a flower patterned dress.

A black candle flickers odd shadows over her face.

She cocks her head to the side expecting a response and smiles.

Can I help?

Brett approaches with fear and desperation in his eyes.

Uh, I...

His mouth moves, but nothing comes out.

She smiles a semi-toothless grin.

Come closer, child. So, I can get a better
look at you.

Glaucoma clouds her eyes.

What’s your poison, son.
I know it’s hard.

Tears fill his eyes. He braces himself against the counter.

My wife... I want her to live. Please,
help me. I don’t want her to die.

She pats his hand. Her smile fades to a concerned frown.

Wait here.

She turns and disappears behind a red velvet curtain.

Brett sniffles, wipes his eyes, and straightens his shirt.

The old lady returns carrying an unlabeled mason jar.

Take this.

She hands him the container.

He examines the gelatinous sanguine-colored material. It swishes against the sides as he moves it.

That’s it? What is this stuff?

It’s a custom mix. I could tell you all
the ingredients, but I’m sure their names
would mean little to you.

Brett looks up with a question on his lips.

Yes, this is what will do what you wish.
Now, please, she must inhale the smoke
that emits from the jar.

The old lady reaches out.

Brett hands her the jar and she pantomimes the instructions.

Put a lighted match right into the liquid,
it will ignite, then place it under her

She sets the jar down.

What you asked, will then become a

Brett stares at the jar a moment. He nods.

OK, yes.

The old lady gestures to the cash register.

Two thousand dollars.

Brett looks back at the jar and then the old lady. She nods.

He pulls out his wallet. 

© Chris Keaton

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Excerpt from What's Your Poison? short story
by Annemarie Bogart

 Brett looked up, the chipped sign dangled on rusted chains. It hit against the stucco wall off the building’s front. Herbs. He glanced into the wide-paned window but saw nothing past the jars piled inside. His red eyes brimmed with tears. He gripped the doorknob and pushed. Chimes sang in his ear. He entered the candlelit shop.
Mason jars filled with various shapes line the walls. Brett read the names printed in red calligraphy on the glass containers. Mhyrr. Eyebright. Mullein. Yarrow. He had no idea what these things were.

“What’s your poison?”
The graveled voice startled him. Brett turned from the display and faced the voice. An old woman hunched behind the wooden counter. Her white hair hung down her flowered dress. A black candle flickered close to her face. The deep lines around her eyes deepened. Her head cocked to one side, ready for a response.
He wasn’t sure he had one.
Coming to this place had been his last resort. The doctors gave up long ago. They had told him Melanie had only a week or so left. By the looks of her feeble body, he believed them. Thing is, he couldn’t let go. A twenty-five year old shouldn’t be given their check-out papers, not this way. Brett refused to let her go until every avenue was explored. After mediums, massage therapists, steam counselors, holistic doctors, and every other kook known to the desperate, the map ended here. This small shop suggested by a friend of a friend.
“Uh, I…”
Brett tried to practice his speech before coming, but it never sounded right in his head. He didn’t trust his voice not to crack and himself not to break down in sobs.
“Come closer, child. So, I can get a better look at you.”
Brett walked towards the elderly woman, she sounded so kind.
Glaucoma clouded her eyes. Her thin lips curved into a smile accentuating her lack of front teeth.
“What’s your poison, son. I know it’s hard.”
Brett felt the first tear fall before he could hold it in check.
After that initial drop, the rest followed unguarded.
“My wife…I want her to live. Please, help me. I don’t want her to die.”
Brett managed to get the words out between sobs.
The old lady patted his hand. Her smile turned down into a concerned frown.
“Wait here.”

She turned from Brett and walked into the back room concealed by a red velvet-like curtain.
Brett tried to compose himself before she returned. He hated the way his emotions controlled him these days. He prided himself on keeping himself in check; never let them see you sweat. Ever since the doctors diagnosed Melanie with cancer last year, his self-importance dissolved. His only thoughts remained with his wife.
She returned. In her hands, she carried a mason jar like the others on the shop shelves. No label adorned this jar.
“Take this. Burn its contents, let the fumes waft under your wife’s nose.”
“That’s it? What is that stuff?”
The gelatinous sanguine-colored material swished against the sides of the glass when she lay it down on the  counter,
“It’s a custom mix. I could tell you all the ingredients, but I’m sure their names would mean little to you. Yes, this is what will do what you wish. Now, please, she must inhale the smoke that emits from the jars. Put a lighted match right into the liquid, it will ignite, then place it under here nose. What you asked, will then become a reality.”
Brett stared at the jar. Although it seemed too good to be true, he reasoned there simply was no other choice. After paying a hefty sum, he thanked the old woman and left the shop. Expectations of the concoction’s effectiveness drifted through his head.

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Visit the film's website here

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