The all-time classic novel The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton and the 1983 film The Outsiders may share the same story and characters, but the classic film stands out for very different reasons than the book did in 1967.
Translating a classic novel into film is never easy. The level of detail and character insight is never quite able to make the cinematic leap simply because of the medium. A lot can be portrayed through the visual medium with good actors, score, dialogue, and background. Yet, a motion picture could never replicate the effect of an omnipresent narrator describing the every detail of an event or character. That is why Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 screen rendition of The Outsiders did not try to emulate the book.
Tastefully and with great skill, The Outsiders movie provides much of the familiarity of the novel through its characters and tropes while treading a somewhat different path in its execution. Rather than playing heavily to the “coming of age” and the “not so different, you and I” motifs that are certainly still present, familiar, and welcome, the movie takes on a different, unexpected theme. The Outsiders takes a deep look at what really makes some of its characters outsiders: their emotions.
Greasers and Socs
The rivalry between the Socs and the Greasers is a bit cartoonish in its exaggeration. There is little reason given to why they despise one another save for the high-class, well-off Socs looking down on the poor and unkempt Greasers for simply being different from them. It is clear things were not always this way. Darry (Patrick Swayze), the patriarch of the Greasers and Paul (John Meier) the leader of the Socs were once good buddies not so long ago in high school. Wading too deep into the backstory of the Greasers-Socs rivalry would only muddy things up though in the wrong way. Viewers are clearly meant to detest the Socs for their pompous and senseless hatred of the Greasers. There is little sympathy for the bullies who have it all and constantly pick fights with the Greasers purely out of spite.
All the while, the Greasers are not entirely sympathetic in their portrayal either. Aside from Ponyboy (C. Thomas Howell) and Johnny (Ralph Macchio), the two central characters, and perhaps Ponyboy’s older brother Sodapop (Rob Lowe), most of the Greasers are just jerks in one way or another. Dally (Matt Dillon) who Ponyboy and Johnny really look up to, is simply gross in nearly every scene he appears in until the climax of the story. Even by contemporary standards his treatment of Cherry (Diane Lane) over and over is appalling. Two-Bit (Emilio Estevez), another close friend of the boys is always picking a fight and being curt to everyone he encounters while even Ponyboy’s oldest brother Darry is not very nice for much of the film. The Greasers give off a very anti-hero feel in many ways. They are easy to root for throughout the movie because they are portrayed as the “good guys” and because Ponyboy and Johnny happen to associate with them.
The Outsiders could easily tap into the mutual contempt drawn towards both gangs, playing up the moral equivalency like the novel did and lean heavily on a theme that asks the audience to walk in the other side’s shoes for a day. However, it does not. This does not detract from the overall value of the film necessarily, but rather, it requires entering the film without preconceptions based on memories of how the feelings called upon by the original property. The Outsiders takes advantage of the backdrop S. E. Hinton set up as a teenager decades early and uses the Socs and Greasers not to set up a false juxtaposition to one another, but provide a true one to Ponyboy and Johnny.
Never Knew There Was So Much Blood Inside A Person
It is true; everyone bleeds the same color red. This analogy is the manifesto of virtually every rivalry coming to terms with each other. The Greasers and Socs would not know anything of the sort within their own families, let alone one another. They have no idea that everyone bleeds the same because not a single one is ever willing to talk about it. Nobody is ever willing to talk about anything. Every conflict in the film boils down to a lack of honest conversation.
The Greasers and Socs hate each other, in part, because they never talk. It is clear if they did things might be different between the gangs. Cherry is proof of that. She gets along great with Ponyboy and Johnny, has no fear going to the Greasers’ vacant lot to warn them about Soc revenge, and even remarks on how her fear of being seen with a Greaser is all that truly keeps her from letting Dally’s flirting win her over. This is all only true to the extent it is because she was willing to talk to Ponyboy and share some feelings with him. The pattern persists with the Soc Randy Anderson (Darren Dalton). He only finally makes peace with Ponyboy after the two share a brief moment of emotional vulnerability.
The circumstance is no better within the Greaser circle either. Ponyboy is never shown affection from Darry, even though he clearly years for it after his parents’ deaths. Even after Johnny dies, Darry and every other Greaser are just unable to show any sympathy or grief. Dally seems to have it the worst. He is constantly deflecting difficult conversations away towards debauchery to protect himself from the deep anguish he feels. Not only was Dally a lost soul before Johnny’s accident, but especially afterward, the emotional stuntedness of the Greaser culture left the kid with no outlet to express himself.
The Outsiders is a strange relic from its time. It features an all-star cast of 80s stars, even including Tom Cruise in an insignificant role, before any one of them was famous. The soundtrack, featuring an original song Stay Gold by Stevie Wonder is stellar compared to the frequently awkward effects that may have dramatized the piece at the time but linger as not only clunky today, but indulgent. In the pantheon of Francis Ford Coppola films, The Outsiders makes no real comparison to The Godfather films. Its luster comes largely from the attraction of seeing 80s stars before they were famous and its relation to a beloved coming-of-age novel.
All the while, The Outsiders does something different than other films. Usually, the main characters of stories begin flawed and learn lessons along the way thanks to the supporting characters around them and hardships they encounter. In The Outsiders, Ponyboy and Johnny start and end the film in virtually the same place. They are the only characters who consistently share their emotions. They cry together, they share their fears, and they constantly express their support for one another. They also care deeply about other people besides themselves. Ponyboy joins Johnny on the run because he’s his best friend and worries more about how his brothers will feel about him being gone more than his own wellbeing. Johnny even asks if his parents have looked for him out of a sense of hoping that perhaps just once they showed they cared about him. By the film’s conclusion, little has changed, but that is the point.
Johnny’s wish for Ponyboy to stay gold is a plead to always retain his innocence and never let the weight of the world keep him from expressing how he feels about it. Fortunately, at least one person in Ponyboy’s life learns this lesson too. Sodapop ends the movie by imploring that their family be more like Ponyboy and never turn out like Dally. That they share their feelings in a healthy way instead of just berating one another or running away when things get tough. Things are looking brighter for the youth of Tusla, Oklahoma not because everything was resolved – Cherry still will not acknowledge Ponyboy at school – but because he does stay gold. When his teacher asks him to share a personal essay to pass the course, Ponyboy goes on to write about all of his thoughts and feelings. He cannot possibly expect to change everyone himself, but so long as he stays true to himself, maybe others will follow suite behind Sodapop and share how they feel as well.
Jason is a graduate student at Binghamton University studying public administration. His mission is to find the universal values in the fictional worlds we love so we can make our real world better and more full. When not writing, Jason works on food justice and sharing music with communities throughout the region. Or he’s unlocking Xbox achievements.