SPOILER ALERT, knives will forever be cooler than guns.
S. E. Hinton
"Things are rough all over."
Tulsa, OK. 1965. There are two rival gangs at Will Rogers High School, the hard-luck Greasers and the sun-kissed Socs, and fifteen-year-old Susan Eloise Hinton identifies with neither. Still, she has a soft spot for the unsung, and a flair for writing, so she begins a story from the Greaser POV. Two years later, The Outsiders is published.
A boy of fourteen shouldn't be such a gifted narrator, but then again, a girl of fifteen shouldn't be such a gifted novelist. Ponyboy Curtis (real name no gimmicks), the youngest of three orphans, tells the unforgettable story and the story unforgettably, from his initial ass-whupping to his inevitable breakdown.
Pony loves books, and they serve him well, but it's his love for movies that gets his ass in the hot bubbles. He's leaving a theater when the Socs chase him down at the very beginning, and he's walking two Soc ladies home (alongside Greaser chums Johnny and Two-Bit) from the drive-in when the rival gang roll up, drunk and ready to rumble. One of the girls, a sympathetic redhead nicknamed "Cherry," is able to defuse tensions, but disaster hasn't been averted, only delayed.
Ponyboy arrives home late enough to earn the ire of his oldest brother/legal guardian Darry, who belts the kid across the face. Pony bolts, finds Johnny (who also enjoys a less-than-idyllic home life), and the two stop at a local park to decompress.
Then a car full of Socs rolls up, and Johnny has to knife Cherry's dude Bob to save Ponyboy's pruning hide. Not ready to face the music, the boys run to find Dally Winston, the tuffest tough they know (he spent three years in New York City fer chrissakes). He gives 'em a gun and directs them to the town of Windrixville, which doesn't have gangs or drive-ins but does have an abandoned church they can hide in till the storm blows over. It's all hair dye, shoplifting, sunsets and wondering what the hell writers mean, when Dally tuffs by, acting all tuff and taking the fellas into town for some eats and updates. Is shit about to go down in Tulsa? Boy howdy.
Good kid Johnny decides it's time he face the music. Dally drives back to the church--which has gone up in flames. Worse, an elementary school class for some goddamn reason decided to take a lunch nearby, and some of the kids decided to explore the church.
Johnny and Ponyboy go all hero while Dally tuffs it out from the safety of his own leather jacket. Too bad; maybe he could've saved Johnny before part of the burning building fell and crippled the poor bastard.
Somebody lock up Sally Brown, 'cause a rumble's about to be on. Shocker in Gloomville, the Greasers "win" and everything's tuff except nah, it sucks, because Johnny succumbs to his injuries in the hospital and Dally goes exploding banana boats, robbing a store and running from the cops with an unloaded gun on his person.
Ponyboy is legally absolved of guilt in the death of Soc Bob, but an orphaned teenager from the wrong side of the tracks who's just seen two peers die can't be expected to serve as a model of aplomb. Luckily, he still has his brothers…and a teacher who's willing to give Pony a passing grade if he turns in a quality theme (none of that "What I want for Christmas" crap).
So that's what he did.
With fourteen million copies sold, The Outsiders basically birthed the "young adult fiction" market. Up until the 21st century, it was among the 100 most "challenged/banned" books as per the American Library Association. My middle school had no qualms with its presence, though, and The Outsiders became the first of only two books I would ever steal from a library.
Beyond the slang-y style, which stuck to my ribs, was the sheer novelty. I initially read the book as a girl of twelve, overweight and shy. I grew up in a home of anywhere from four to nine bodies, unbroken but plenty cracked. I certainly was not a dirty-mouthed, filthy-minded chick or a nattily-attired, highly-decorated young lady. Hell, I was much closer to Susan Hinton, even if my scribbled observations were less noble and lengthy. So this foreign world, of bad boys and good deeds, slicked hair and scarred skin, intrigued me. Greasers loved hair gel and Elvis; I loved pudding pops and Duran Duran. Their clothes were tight and blunt; mine, baggy and vague. The Socs (shorthand for "socials," though I definitely called 'em "Socks" in my head) were impeccable, head-to-toe, and loved the Beatles. (And before you go feeling those rich kids weren't so bad, you know who else loved the Beatles? Hitler.)
The lessons of The Outsiders--ones that Ponyboy was very fortunate to learn at the tender age of fourteen--start with the realization that things really are rough and tough all over, and sweating the details is tiring and tiresome. Spoiled brats and unspectacular degenerates are equally deserving of love and discipline, equally capable of bravery and just as culpable for cowardice. Honor, loyalty, sacrifice--these things should matter to a person. No one should remain "stuck in a church" their whole life.
It also advocated chocolate cake for breakfast decades before researchers did.
Director-Francis Ford Coppola
Writer-Kathleen Rowell (Rowell wrote the first two drafts; Coppola, unhappy at how far Rowell drifted from the source material, produced the final script himself. Due to issues with the Writers Guild of America, however, he was unable to secure writing credit)
"Do it for Johnny!"
The goddamn 1980s. When a librarian in Fresno could write an Oscar-winning director (we're talking a goddamn auteur, he had a heart attack on set, he is like Ric Flair behind that camera!) and ask that he adapt a classic young adult novel almost twenty years after its initial publication and result.
The Outsiders is one 190 page book. For twenty-two years, it was one 90 minute movie. Then in 2005, the "Complete Novel" directors cut came out on DVD, with an additional 25 minutes. You might suspect the longer film to be the more comprehensive and comprehensible, and that suspicion would be correct.
But, it's still nothing special.
Whereas another director (most directors?) might have blanched at the prospect of a stark adaptation, Sofia's dad worshipped at the altar of the novel. Maybe a bit too fervently. While the 1983 version is shorter and punchier, it omits key scenes that not only illuminate the plot but the players. That's no good. The original cut is basically the whole damn book on screen. That's also no good.
Reason being? The novel revolved around Ponyboy. He told a riveting story, but if a reader wasn't willing to learn his language, the story would never hook them. There's more to it all than unfettered dudeness; there's a restless, rebellious power driving these rough 'n' tumbles (and their likewise neighborhood), unstable and full of potential.
While the movie also follows Ponyboy, we only watch him watching. We lack the further gift of his insights, of how past informed present and could possibly reform future. It's a significant loss.
S. E. Hinton was only seventeen when Viking Press gave her first novel a chance. The woman Coppola called "Susie" received a scant 500 bucks from Zoetrope Studio for the movie rights, but she enjoyed treatment rare for any writer; not only was she encouraged to be on the set and in the film (as a nurse), she became a mother figure to the actors and she apparently made a film director considered one of the world's finest scared to do anything drastic to her source material.
How goddamn 1980s is this cast: C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze (31 playing 20), Rob Lowe (his film debut), Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise and Diane Lane. Sexy buncha bums. None at their peak, however, or anywhere near, resulting in a major motion picture made by a slumming genius and some student actors.
Verisimilitude issues abound. Matt Dillon as a skull ring-wearing tough guy is as plausible as, well, Ralph Macchio as a blade-wielding tough guy. (As the group's poor abused trembling puppy, though? Not bad, Ralph. Estevez does a pretty good job as my second-favorite character from the book, when the accent ain't fighting back, that is.)
Lots of lingering shots on the countryside and on sunsets. The countryside is always better in your head, and the sunset is always better enjoyed on your own terms. Reading about PB & J on the run, subsisting on cigarettes, bologna sandwiches and epic fictions, that was absorbing. I cared about those kids. Watching them smoke and eat and quote Robert Frost, that left me fidgety.
Hinton emphasized eyes, while Coppola is preoccupied with skies. Pink as skin, red as blood, golden as a child's heart. The hazes, the silhouettes, and of course the sunsets. Pretty stuff. So's cotton candy. You can get that stuff damn near everywhere.
Turning Dally's death into Sonny on the causeway, another eye-roller. (Yet, he turns Darry slapping baby bro Ponyboy into a hard push. Which makes the younger man's retreat from the homestead a bit more puzzling.)
Oh, Sofia's dad did some things right. Good move replacing Carmine Coppola's sapped-out soundtrack with a collection of tunes faithful to the era: Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, "Gloria." (Stevie Wonder's mawkish ballad "Stay Gold" remains the credit music, however.) Even then, he mucks it up during the church rescue scene, placing overwhelming rockabilly over the action for reasons I promise you are not good enough.
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Yeah, because I promise your head lacked stilted line readings and comical emotionalism.
Yeah, because Ponyboy Curtis is one of the most generous narrators yet.
Yeah, because you'll find yourself wondering which of the other Outsiders you'd love to hear the same story from. (Two-Bit for me, he'd bring a humor and irreverence my adult self would appreciate.)
Yeah, because the film won't help you see how reality is the best and worst thing for an imagination.
MIND THE GAP
"Movies and books, movies and books. I wish that you would concentrate on somethin' else just once in awhile."
Shut the fuck up, Darry.
Whatever version, Coppola indulged in empty calories. The Outsiders did not need to be "brought to life" for any reason other than the making of the money.
Stay whatever precious metal you are.