In the early 80s, Francis Ford Coppola was one of the most acclaimed American film directors. He had zero plans to direct a coming-of-age movie until he received a letter from a librarian at Lone Star Elementary School in Fresno, California. In the letter, written on behalf of her students, Jo Ellen Misakian told Coppola that they loved the book “The Outsiders” so much and requested the director adapt it into a movie. The letter contained 15 pages of signatures from Misakian’s 7th and 8th-grade students. Impressed by the relationship between the friends in the novel, Coppola decided to take on the project.
Told from the perspective of 14-year-old Ponyboy Curtis, “The Outsiders” follows a group of troubled young, working-class “Greasers” in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and their constant rivalry with the upper-class “Socs.” Ponyboy and his older brothers, Sodapop (Rob Lowe) and Darry (Patrick Swayze), struggle to get by after the death of their parents. After a typical night of barely dodging trouble, Ponyboy and his best friend, Johnny Cade (Ralph Macchio), are involved in a terrible tragedy. With the help of the reckless yet resourceful Dallas Winston (Matt Dillon), Ponyboy and Johnny flee town, leading to several events that change their lives and redefine what it means to be a “Greaser.”
“The Outsider” was a breakout movie for all the actors in the star-studded cast, including Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise, and Diane Lane, who went on to have extremely successful careers. While there are moments of cringy line delivery (hey, it was still the 80s), the cast has great chemistry and gives authentic performances. Out of all the Greasers, the standout actor is Ralph Macchio (who went on to star in “The Karate Kid”) as Johnny, whose abusive parents keep him out of his house and on the streets. As the shyest member of the gang, Macchio plays Johnny with a timid vulnerability, absolutely shattering your heart when he utters the iconic line “Stay Gold, Ponyboy.”
Following the book fairly closely, “The Outsiders” is based on the 1967 novel that author S.E. Hinton wrote when she was only 16. Hinton was known as the on-set mother to the cast and was heavily involved in the film’s production, which is often rare for an author to do. She also assisted Coppola in adapting the screenplay. The same year, Coppola also directed an adaptation of Hinton’s third novel, “Rumble Fish,” starring Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke.
There are two different viewing options for “The Outsiders:” The Theatrical Cut and The Complete Novel, aka the director’s cut. I assumed the Complete Novel version was the default, but only the theatrical cut is available on streaming services. In 1983, Coppola was forced to reduce the film to a mere 90 minutes, which resulted in reduced screen time for most of the actors and many narrative plot holes that only make sense to those who have read the book.
In 2005, Coppola revisited the film and released, The Complete Novel version, which is 22 minutes longer, and notably includes a beginning scene that introduces all the characters. My only complaint with the more extended version is the music. Coppola wasn’t a fan of his father Carmine’s sweeping but a little too melodramatic score in the original cut, so he replaced all of the music with popular songs from the 50s and 60s. While the new soundtrack works well in many scenes, there are a few very serious moments where the loud surfer-style music is distracting and completely changes the emotional tone. Aside from that, if you want a longer, more detailed version of the story, and if you’re a fan of the book, I highly recommend the Complete Novel over the theatrical version.
Upon its initial release, “The Outsiders” received mixed reviews, with Roger Ebert giving it 2.5 out of 4 stars. Considering Coppola was fresh from directing “The Godfather I & II” and “Apocalypse Now,” critics may have had overly high expectations for “The Outsiders.” One overlooked element that also makes the movie stand out from others in the genre is the beautiful cinematography by Stephen Henry Burum.
Over the years, the film has gained a cult following. The fact that it was filmed on location in Tulsa and not on a Hollywood set also adds a level of authenticity to the movie, and “The Outsider’s” legacy is still very strong in Tulsa. In 2016, hip-hop Danny Boy O’Connor purchased the Curtis Brother’s house for $15,000, and with help from multiple donors, including Jack White and Billy Idol, and support from S.E. Hinton and some of the movie’s stars, the home was restored. The Outsiders House Museum is now a popular tourist attraction where fans can tour the house and view memorabilia and props from the film.
I first read “The Outsiders” when I was 14, and the story and Ponyboy’s observations are still relatable after all these years. It’s a great book/movie that helps kids gain empathy for those who do not come from the most stable upbringings. With the popularity of movies starring the Brat Pack and directed by John Hughes, the 80s was jammed packed with films about teenagers, some that aged quite poorly. While many critics don’t consider this movie to be on the masterpiece level of some of Coppola’s earlier work, “The Outsiders” still deserves a top spot in coming-of-age cinema.