I was just the right age for S.E. Hinton’s young adult novels in the early 1980s. It was at an impressionable age that I read and re-read The Outsiders, Rumble Fish and Tex (for some reason I never warmed up to That Was Then, This Is Now). I loved getting lost in the worlds she created, often about teenagers from the wrong side of the tracks facing real problems. I liked that she didn’t sugarcoat things or talked down to her readers. There was an authenticity to her work that deeply affected me, especially The Outsiders, the novel of hers I read the most.
As luck would have it, the ‘80s would see film adaptations of her first four novels, starting with Tex (1982), but the one I really looked forward to the most was The Outsiders (1983). At that young age I had no idea who Francis Ford Coppola was or the mostly unknown cast of young actors but I knew that they brilliantly brought Hinton’s novel to the life on the big screen almost exactly how I imagined it when I read it. The film affected me so strongly that the characters in the novel and the actors that portrayed him became indistinguishable.
“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” And so begins Hinton’s classic story about troubled youths in 1960s Tulsa, Oklahoma. Ponyboy Curtis (C. Thomas Howell) is a young teenager from the wrong side of the tracks. He’s a Greaser, Hinton’s romanticized version of poor, white trash. He and his best friend Johnny Cade (Ralph Macchio) go to a drive-in movie theater with fellow Greaser Dallas Winston (Matt Dillon).
What is so striking about these early scenes is how much Matt Dillon commands the screen with his cocky swagger and mischievous attitude as he half-heartedly chases a trio of little kids across a vacant lot while “Gloria” by Them plays on the soundtrack. The actor portrays his character like a playful variation of Marlon Brando’s biker in The Wild One (1953). He really gets to have some fun when Dallas, Johnny and Ponyboy arrive at the drive-in and decide to sit behind two beautiful girls – Cherry (Diane Lane) and her friend Marcia (Michelle Meyrink) – who left their drunk Soc (rich white kids) boyfriends. He starts hitting on Cherry and initially it’s funny and we see genuine chemistry between Dillon and Diane Lane (that would continue in two more films they made together) but things go south quickly when he gets nasty and she tells him to get lost. It’s an enjoyable bit of acting on Dillon’s part as we see how easily Dallas can go from rascally to crude in a few moments. Lane is also decent as Cherry goes from playfully flirting to angrily offended, telling off the nasty punk.
After leaving the drive-in, the focus shifts to Ponyboy and Johnny who take refuge in vacant lot when the latter discovers his parents fighting at home. This scene shows the close bond these two boys have and how tough life is for them, especially when they have to deal with Socs. Ralph Macchio is particularly moving in this scene as Johnny breaks down and laments, “Seems like there’s got to be some place without Greasers, Socs. Must be some place with just plain, ordinary people.” He says these words with a heartbreaking vulnerability reminiscent of Sal Mineo’s doomed teen in A Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Their lives are changed forever when they hang out at a local playground and cross paths with a carload of Socs – the same ones that are boyfriends to Cherry and Marcia and that beat Johnny pretty badly awhile back. They attack Ponyboy and Johnny, trying to drown the former until the latter kills one of them with a switchblade. Fearing that they’ll get in trouble with the law (because Ponyboy’s parents are dead, he’ll be taken away from his brothers) even though it was self-defense, they have Dallas get them out of town. He sends them out to an abandoned church in the country and for a spell the film becomes a two-hander as Ponyboy and Johnny spend the days playing cards and reading Gone with the Wind to each other. This is The Outsiders at its most romantic as they watch sunrises and remark at the stunning colors as Ponyboy quotes a Robert Frost poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Over the course of the film, Coppola extends the metaphor to the friendship between the two boys.
Coppola gets truly wonderful performances out of his young cast, in particular C. Thomas Howell and Macchio, as evident in the portion of the film where their characters are hiding out in the country. There’s one scene where Ponyboy gets upset when the realization of how much trouble they’re in sinks in. Their friendship is the heart and soul of The Outsiders with the sensitive Johnny being the Greasers’ unofficial mascot that everyone looks out for – even the jaded tough guy Dallas. Watching this film more than 30 years later it is amazing to see how many actors got their start or that this was their first major role. Matt Dillon, Diane Lane, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Patrick Swayze, and Tom Cruise were all relative unknowns and went on to greater fame after the success of this movie.
Coppola has always had an uncanny eye for casting and this is readily apparent with The Outsiders, which features an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the cast. Lowe and Swayze play Ponyboy’s older brothers, both of whom had to drop out of school to get jobs to make ends meet with the former playing the disciplinarian and the latter, the easy-going peacemaker. They, along with Howell, are believable as brothers, given little screen-time to convey a tight bond between their respective characters.
Howell delivers a thoughtful performance, capturing the dreamer quality that is essential to Ponyboy, a character who reads Gone with the Wind and enjoys sunsets. Estevez is a funny scene-stealer as Two-Bit Matthews, always cracking jokes. Initially, Dallas appears to be the toughest, most cynical of the Greasers, but by the end of the film it is revealed that under that hard exterior is someone with a big heart and when the one thing that keeps him in check is taken away, he spirals out of control, which allows Dillon to go full-on Method scenery-chewing in a powerful, show-stopping, operatic exit that is worthy of the 1950s melodramas Coppola is celebrating.
With the help of cinematographer Stephen H. Burum, Coppola creates a richly textured world shot in glorious widescreen with a look that evokes another epic about troubled youth, A Rebel Without a Cause. The Outsiders is also drenched in the golden hues of warm sunrises and sunsets like something right out of Gone with the Wind (1939). The Outsiders is clearly Coppola’s homage to Rebel and other melodramatic teen movies of the ‘50s. The screenplay is peppered with the occasional grandiose statement like when Dallas dedicates the upcoming rumble with the Socs, “We’ll do it for Johnny,” like a declaration of war that seems anachronistic and cheesy by today’s standards but would not seem out of place in a James Dean film.
One of the themes that drives The Outsiders is a loss of innocence. Despite his poor upbringing, Ponyboy is an idealist who believes in the basic decency of people – even Socs. It is Johnny who keeps him hopeful, to “Stay Gold,” to paraphrase the Robert Frost poem they both love. Ultimately, the film is about looking beyond one’s socio-economic class and judging people by their actions. Although, it is pretty obvious that Coppola’s sympathies lie with the Greasers as opposed to the selfish Socs.
That being said, there’s a nice scene late in the film when Ponyboy has a private conversation with Randy (Darren Dalton), the Soc that was friends with the boy that Johnny killed. He lets his guard down and tells Ponyboy in a moment of rare candor, “You can’t win, you know that, don’t you? It doesn’t matter if you whip us, you’ll still be where you were before – at the bottom and we’ll still be the lucky ones at the top with all the breaks. It doesn’t matter. Greasers’ll still be Greasers and Socs will still be Socs.” It is an important scene in that it not only humanizes Randy but also underlines the fundamental truth about this world – the characters will forever be defined by their socio-economical class. It is this realization that makes the Greasers’ victory over the Socs in the film’s climactic battle ultimately a hollow one. This is compounded further by the tragic demise of two people close to Ponyboy.
S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was 15-years-old, based on the social differences she witnessed at her high school. Viking Press published it two years later in 1967 and it quickly became a cultural phenomenon, kickstarting the Young Adult genre. It immediately struck a chord with young readers who identified with its honest depiction of teenagers and became a staple at school classrooms around the country. In 1980, Francis Ford Coppola received a paperback copy of the novel accompanied by a letter written by Jo Ellen Misakian, a librarian at Lone Star School, Fresno County. Apparently, a petition had been started at school to get the book made into a film and they selected Coppola as the best director for the job.
In her letter, she wrote, “I feel our students are representative of the youth of America. Everyone who has read the book, regardless of ethnic or economic background, has enthusiastically endorsed this project.” Coppola asked his producer Fred Roos to read the book and let him know if it was suitable for cinematic treatment. He read it from cover to cover and recommended Coppola make it. In addition, the novel had sold four million copies since 1970 and this convinced Coppola of its potential for box office success – something that he needed at the time. Roos met with Hinton in the summer of ’80 and found out that she wasn’t a fan of Coppola’s Godfather films or Apocalypse Now (1979) but being an admirer of horses loved The Black Stallion (1979), which he produced, and felt that it demonstrated he and Roos “had some affinity for young adult fiction,” according to the latter.
Hinton asked $5,000 for the rights but at the time Zoetrope, Coppola’s production company, was struggling with massive bank debt when his passion project, the ambitious One from the Heart’s (1982) budget ballooned to $25 million. She agreed to a $500 down payment. He was able to get a distribution contract from Warner Bros. and on the strength of that, Chemical Banks gave Zoetrope a loan and a completion guarantee from Britain’s National Film Finance Corporation, which resulted in a $10 million budget.
Coppola hired young writer Kathleen Rowell to adapt the novel but the filmmaker felt that their screenplay was “too much soap opera” and shelved the project. He would soon return to it, reading the book and feeling that making it would be a way to escape his trouble with Zoetrope: “I used to be a great camp counselor, and the idea of being with half a dozen kids in the country and making a movie seemed like being a camp counselor again. It would be a breath of fresh air. I’d forget my troubles and have some laughs again.” He would end up writing 14 drafts with Hinton. The Writers Guild of America wouldn’t give her credit for her contributions and in protest, Coppola temporarily quit the organization.
To prepare for filming, Hinton drove Coppola around Tulsa, showing him locations she thought of while writing the book. To help the cast get into character, Coppola separated them by social class and so all the Greasers stayed on the same hotel room floor and hung out together while the Socs had nicer rooms. Furthermore, the actors playing the Socs received their scripts in leather-bound binders while the Greasers had them in denim notebooks. Actor Ralph Macchio remembers that Coppola had “a very theatrical way of working.” In early March of 1982, the cast spent two weeks rehearsing, improvising, and doing acting exercises, which helped everyone bond with each other. He then videotaped a dress rehearsal with the actors in front of a blank screen. He would superimpose stills of exterior locations sites in Tulsa and shots of interior sets so that by the time principal photography started on March 29, he had a good idea of how each scene would look. C. Thomas Howell remembers, “We were all raw and young and very impressionable, so it was a good time for us to have a mentor like Coppola.”
Filming finished on May 15 as planned and Coppola began editing it during the summer. He approached his father Carmine to compose “a kind of schmaltzy classical score” that would embody the Gone with the Wind for teens vibe he wanted: “It appealed to me that kids could see Outsiders as a lavish, big-feeling epic about kids.”
While performing strongly at the box office, The Outsiders was not particularly well-received by critics with Roger Ebert giving it two-and-a-half out of four stars. He wrote, “The problem, I’m afraid, is with Coppola’s direction. He seems so hung up with his notions of a particular movie ‘look,’ with his perfectionistic lighting and framing and composition, that the characters wind up like pictures, framed and hanged on the screen.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “To those of us who can’t buy Mr. Coppola’s inflated attempts at myth making, it’s a melodramatic kidfilm with the narrative complexity of The Three Bears and a high body count.” The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “Between the aimlessness of the plot and the marshmallow sponginess of the sentimental content, Coppola is left with ingredients every bit as defective and softheaded as the ones he overrated in One from the Heart.”
Coppola’s original version was quite faithful to Hinton’s book but in 2005, he decided to revisit the film and put back in 22 more minutes of deleted scenes, most noticeably at the beginning and end of the film. This new footage opens up the film more. We are introduced to the Greasers much earlier on now that Coppola isn’t reined in by the dictates of test screenings. Another significant change has Coppola replacing all of his father’s beautiful, classical score in favor of period rock ‘n’ roll music. In some cases, like the opening scene where Ponyboy is jumped by some Socs, it works and in others, like the whimsical surf music that plays over the scene where the Socs jump Johnny and Ponyboy, it feels awkward and out of place. Part of the film’s original charm was its moments of ‘50s style melodrama, as epitomized by the film’s orchestral soundtrack, and this is diminished by the newly inserted period music that could be right out of an episode of Crime Story. Hinton’s books are timeless with their universal themes and the original music reflected that. This new music, while accurate for its time period, contributes to a loss of some of the timeless feel.
Throughout the ups and downs that Ponyboy experiences, what matters most is the bond he has with his brothers and his fellow Greasers that are an extension of his biological family. They stick up for each other and this is a large part of the film’s (and book’s) appeal – a story dominated by teenagers with little to no adult presence. When you’re a kid and always being told what to do by your parents, teachers and other adults, a story where kids your own age are the protagonists has a very definite allure – a form of escape that speaks to the reader in a way that feels honest and true. This is why the novel and its film adaptation continue to endure and speak to successive generations of young people.
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Dickerson, Justin. “An Inside Look at The Outsiders.” USA Today. September 19, 2005.
Gilliam, Mitch, Joshua Kline, Joe O’Shansky and Michael Wright. “Making The Outsiders.” The Tulsa Voice. August 2016.
Harmetz, Aljean. “Making The Outsiders, A Librarian’s Dream.” The New York Times. March 23, 1983.
Phillips, Gene D. Godfather: The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola. University Press of Kentucky. 2004.