From Page to Screen: “Keith” by Ron Carlson

keith carlson

First sentence: They were lab partners.

Characterization: Keith was the window, wallpaper, woodwork. He’d been there for years and they’d never seen him. This was complicated because for years he was short and then he grew tall. And then he grew a long black slash of hair and now he had a crewcut. He was hard to see, hard to fix in one’s vision.

My journey to reading “Keith” was rather serendipitous. I bought the collection for $3 at a used bookstore about 2 years ago,  mostly because I liked the cover. I then put it in my bookshelf and forgot about it. In the meantime, I watched a cute Netflix recommended movie called “Keith.”  I liked it, did my research and realized it was based on a short story. Of course I recognized the book’s cover. Lo and behold it was part of the collection I’d bought and never bothered to crack open. So I immediately read it.

After reading the story, I can see why someone thought it would make a good movie. Creating scenes out of life, pretending life is a movie — it’s a theme within the short story itself. Like David Nicholls’ One Day, it’s practically screaming to be a cinematic love story. But not in a big or pretentious way.  “Keith” (2008) is an indie film and sadly may be on no one else’s radar except diehard Jesse McCartney fans. Yes, Jesse McCartney’s in it. But stay with me. My thoughts on the movie are below. First, the story.

The story revolves around high schoolers Barbara Anderson and Keith Zetterstrom. Barbara is the smart, popular girl with the cute boyfriend; Keith is the “wallpaper.” But he’s pretty snarky, sarcastic wallpaper. He provokes Barbara and does strange things like ask her on a date that’s not a date, involving bowling balls without bowling.  There’s some sad, but adorable conversations and moments between them. It’s quirky and creative.

Thinking it through:

I was most impressed with how Carlson carried off the voice of Keith. The dialogue somehow made Keith sound like a smart-alec without Carlson’s saying, “Keith is a smart-aleck.” I think it’s tricky to create a tone or mood like that without explicitly telling readers what you want them to think. There’s also wonderful imagery. He connects emotions and moments to inanimate objects, and then later uses those objects to stab me in the heart (yes, this story might make you tear up a bit).

Keith (2008)

When I watch a film adaptation of a book the first thing I usually notice is all the itty-bitty, seemingly trivial changes the director (or whoever) has made. Like Barbara’s name. In the movie her name is Natalie. Hm. Also Natalie wants to go to Duke not Brown University. And the color of Keith’s truck is yellow not forest green. You could say it doesn’t matter, but if it doesn’t matter, why change it? There are certain fundamental differences between the book medium and the film medium, the one most obvious being visuals. So if I had to guess, I’d say they changed the color of Keith’s car because yellow would stand out more on screen. Simple as that. Despite my usual desire for fidelity to a text, films have an aesthetic element that must be factored into an adaptation, and I acknowledge this. Seemingly trivial changes might actually be important stylistic and/or practical choices that are in no way criticizing the original author’s work.


Never thought I’d say that I like Jesse McCartney doing anything, but he finds the right voice here; he sounds like the Keith I read. I can’t always put my finger on exactly what does and doesn’t work in book-to-film adaptations, but the actors are just as responsible for interpretation as the screenplay writer, the director, producer, etc. Aesthetics aside, actors create the tone of the film, and they have to be convincing. I think both leads hit the mark here. When I realized McCartney was in it, I had horrifying visions of group song-and-dance scenes, smiling kids singing, “Be who you are!” (To top it off, the director is the co-creator of “Blues Clues”). But the film is unassuming and avoids corniness by keeping high school stereotypes to a minimum. It’s not without cliches (popular, smart girl has parents with overly high expectations for success), but the film handles them with less exaggeration. It’s more interested in shedding stereotypes than building them up. Any high school movie that does that should be applauded.

There’s no doubt Carlson’s story is subtler. Something that can be read in 20 minutes can be far more enigmatic and elusive than something that has to hold an audience’s attention for an hour and a half. If viewers feel neither character remains mysterious enough for them, if they become too familiar, then it’s because a film must, to some extent, fill in the gaps that a short story purposefully, stylistically, leaves open to the reader’s imagination. It has to do this in order to push the narrative forward, to satisfy audiences with more scenes between “Natalie” and Keith, for instance, or to create more aesthetically pleasing moments that can make the film, in its own right, iconic.

It’s an enjoyable movie without knowing its inspiration. But if you can get your hands on a copy of The Hotel Eden, I recommend reading “Keith.” Published 1997.


9 thoughts on “From Page to Screen: “Keith” by Ron Carlson

  1. This is a movie that rises way above the expectations one may have had for it. The two major actors, Natalie and Keith, are so superbly well drawn. A simple story becomes a symphony of real life. I cannot praise this indie film enough. Yes, it tugs at the heart strings but in a most tangible and convincing manner. “Keith” is a movie which will stay with you long after the credits have rolled. In my mind this understated film is a real gem that deserves a wide audience and major recognition. Bravo to all, from the author of the short story by Ron Carlson on which the film is based, the two major actors, the director and camera crew, and the musical score which fits the mood so perfectly. Do not pass up the opportunity to be deeply moved and significantly enriched by time spent with “Keith.”

  2. Apparently ‘Keith’ the short story is available online as a free e-book! I bought the book as well and completely agree with the post, although I love the film more, especially the music, the cinamatography, the very clever construction of it. Nobody I recommended it to disliked it!

  3. Email me i *may* send you an ebook copy.
    Only because I know how badly I wanted to read if after watching the movie.

  4. Pingback: Three Day Quote Challenge: Day 3 | Meet Me in Nevada

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