The big-screen versions of the Greasers and Socs (pronounced Soches) battled it out for the first time on March 25, 1983 – 40 years ago today -- when director Francis Coppola’s adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s beloved Y.A. book, The Outsiders, opened in theaters nationwide. Depending on who you ask, the film is neither great nor terrible. The adjective “good” probably does it proper justice. What’s significant about it is that it adapted a mega-popular book that almost everybody read in high school, and managed not to mess it up.
Coppola famously decided to make the movie when – after the back-to-back traumas of directing the massive and expensive Apocalypse Now and One from the Heart – he received a letter from a California librarian and many of her school’s students, requesting that he adapt The Outsiders. He did so, with the help and active participation of Hinton herself, who pops up briefly in the film as a nurse. And, for better or worse, he stuck to the book, including much of its unique dialogue, which Hinton wrote at age 16.
As in the book, The Outsiders film unfolds in 1965, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and follows big brother Darry, who has raised Ponyboy and Sodapop since their parents’ deaths. All hell breaks loose when Dallas makes a move on Cherry. She’s dating a Soc and thus Soc-adjacent, and the Soc crew doesn’t take kindly to the gesture. It leads to a fight that leaves Bob dead from a knife wound inflicted by Johnny. Ponyboy and Johnny go on the run and spend several days (and a good chunk of screen time) pondering life and fate, reading Gone with the Wind, deciding whether to turn themselves in and saving several kids from a church fire. Cue a couple of bad haircuts and dye jobs, a bigger rumble, a death, and a suicide.
For all the burgeoning star power in the movie, it very easily could have starred other notable actors. In an Entertainment Weekly oral history feature by Lynette Rice, Macchio recounted seeing “Timothy Hutton, Sean Penn, Dennis Quaid, Mickey Rourke… It was a movie everybody wanted to be in. Leif Garrett was probably the most famous guy who walked in. Scott Baio came in one day.” Howell recalled, “Francis would point to somebody and say, ‘Now you go.’ It would be Val Kilmer.”
The Outsiders grossed just shy of $34 million against a $10 million budget. Reviews ran the gamut, with some critics calling the 91-minute-long film too slow, stagey, sappy, stylized, and maudlin, with a bombastic score (by Coppola’s father), and too many moments from the book not included. Others, however, deemed it a classic, praised the cast’s performances, considered its look naturalistic, and actually admired Coppola’s faithfulness to the novel. Much like with the book, many longtime fans treasure The Outsiders as among “the” movies of their generation, and it continually finds a fresh generation of adoring teen fans. Back in 2005, Coppola himself oversaw The Outsiders: The Complete Novel, a DVD special edition that restored 22 minutes of trimmed (true-to-the-book) scenes, cut a few bits, too, and added in a mostly new score and several period songs.
Perhaps what stands out most about The Outsiders is the cast of rising stars that Coppola assembled: Matt Dillon as Dallas Winston, C. Thomas Howell as Ponyboy Curtis, Ralph Macchio as Johnny Cade, Rob Lowe as Sodapop Curtis, Leif Garrett as Bob Sheldon, Tom Cruise as Steve Randle, Emilio Estevez as Two-Bit Matthews, Patrick Swayze as Darry Curtis, and Diane Lane as Cherry Valance. The biggest names at the time? Dillon, then a reigning heartthrob, and Garrett, who’d enjoyed success as both an actor and singer. It’s an amazing crush of talent, which is part of the charm of rewatching it to this day.
Where to watch The Outsiders
The Outsiders, the original version, is available for free to HBO Max subscribers. It can be rented or bought on VUDU, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, and iTunes.
Stay gold, everyone!