When Tulsa area teen S.E. Hinton got her first novel The Outsiders published in 1967, there were already concerns over the novel. The term “young adult novel” probably hadn’t entered into the literary world. Even Judy Blume hadn’t published a book yet. She had wrote it while still in high school as she was upset over the divisions she saw among her peers and how they would resort to violence to settle things.
The novel found itself on many banned book lists from schools and libraries. Yet one educator felt the novel should be turned into a movie. And so did several of her students. Jo Ellen Misakian, a librarian at the Lone Star Elementary School in Fresno, Calif. was able to get a letter delivered to Francis Ford Coppola in the 1970s. Coppola was on fire after The Godfather broke box office records and its sequel The Godfather Part II is considered a better movie.
Coppola really had no intention of doing a movie about teen angst but said the letter was very encouraging. “We are all so impressed with the book, The Outsiders by SE Hinton, that a petition has been circulated asking that it be made into a movie. We have chosen you to send it to,” Misakian wrote in the letter and included the signatures of 15 of students who were in the seventh and eighth grade. Coppola had been a drama counselor in his youth working at summer camps and was moved by the gesture.
Maybe it also had something to do with the fact that Coppola’s own son, Roman, was 15, by 1980 when he received the letter, the same age range of the characters in the novel. His neighbor, Nicolas Cage, was also the same junior high/high school age of the kids in the novel. Coppola had also finally released Apocalypse Now in 1979 after a long production schedule that took years.
Then, there was his pet project, One from the Heart, which was a huge box office disaster. So, Coppola needed a hit movie more than ever. So, he assembled a Murder’s Row of young actors and talent. A group photo of the characters could easily fit on a cover of Tiger Beat as it would in an advertisement in Variety. Many of the actors had only been in one or two prior movies.
The Outsiders opened in theaters on this date, March 25, 1983. Matt Dillon, who played Dallas “Dally” Winston, had already filmed in the Tulsa area with Emilio Estevez on the Disney-produced movie Tex, which was the first of Hinton’s books to be adapted. Estevez, son of Martin Sheen, who had worked with Coppola on Apocalypse, would be cast as the prankster greaser Keith “Two-Bit” Matthews who had a love of Mickey Mouse and butterfly knives.
Rounding out the cast was C. Thomas Howell as lead protagonist Ponyboy Curtis, a 14-year-old who is the most sensitive of his circle of friends. His parents had died in a car accident prior to the beginning of the story. Ponyboy lives in the family home with his older brothers, Darrel or “Darry” (Patrick Swayze), who’s too controlling and short-tempered at time because he’ stuck being the head of household but barely out of high school. He also worries about social workers taking Ponyboy and Sodapop (Rob Lowe) away and putting them in a boy’s home. Sodapop had to drop out of school to get a job to help with expenses. He works at a gas station with his best friend, Steve Randle (Tom Cruise).
Ponyboy’s best friend is Johnny Cade (Ralph Macchio) a very troubled young teenager who lives in an abusive household and constantly pushed around by the other teens because of his shorter stature. He also carries a knife with him. He has previously been attacked by the “Socs” who are the rich preppy kids from the more affluent southern Tulsa area neighborhods. Johnny is often pushed around by Dally from time to time but he’s able to stand up to him. There’s also another greaser, Tim Shepherd (Glenn Withrow), who’s an acquaintance but not really a friend as he has his own circle of friends. He often butts heads with Dally. It’s been mentioned Dally just got out of jail.
One night, Dally, Ponyboy and Johnny sneak in to the Admiral Twin Drive-in to see a movie. Dally starts bugging a young preppy girl, Cherry Valance (Diane Lane), and her friend, Marcia (Michelle Meyrink), but Cherry tells him off. Johnny and Ponyboy also tell Dally to leave them alone. Impressed, Cherry and Marcia get cordial with Johnny and Ponyboy when Two-Bit comes around to join them at some seats.
Later as their leaving, Cherry’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, Bob Sheldon (Leif Garrett), and his friend, Randy Anderson (Darren Dalton), try to start a fight with the greasers but Cherry stops it and her and Marcia leave with the Socs. Johnny doesn’t want to go home because he hears his parents arguing so him and Ponyboy go and visit in a city park waiting for Johnny’s parents to go to sleep. But they fall asleep themselves waking up at around 2 a.m. When Ponyboy returns home, Darry gets mad at Ponyboy and hits him in anger, immediately regretting it and apologizing.
But Ponyboy runs out of the house and gets Johnny and they run off to a playground but are found by Bob and Randy and other Socs. Bob is very drunk and they begin beating up Ponyboy and Johnny, going as far as dunking Ponyboy in the water fountain trying to drown him. But Johnny stabs Bob to save Ponyboy killing him. The rest of the Socs leave. Confused, they find Dally at a nearby house party who gives them a pistol and some money telling them to hop the next freight train to a town many miles outside of Tulsa where they can take refuge in an abandoned church.
Ponyboy and Johnny spend about a week there before Dally comes and takes them to get some other food beside bologan sandwhiches they were eating. However, when they return, they see that the church has caught fire as school children has stopped there to eat while on a field trip. Some kids are trapped inside so Ponyboy and Johnny run in despite Dally’s initial objections. But he helps them get the kids out of the church but Johnny becomes trapped and part of the burning building falls on him.
Returning to Tulsa, Ponyboy has to confront what’s happened as the authorities want to charge Johnny with manslaughter, despite the fact that he may not survive his injuries. But the Greasers and Socs want to settle things their own way by having a rumble. Randy even talks with Ponyboy prior and commends him for saving the kids at the fire as he doesn’t think he would’ve been able to do it. Cherry also tells Ponyboy she’s sorry for what happened to Johnny but she’s still mad at him for killing Bob.
In the end, the movie shows that while they can get along in private, around each other, they still got to uphold an image. Randy tells Ponyboy no matter who wins the rumble it won’t change anything. Two-Bit mentions Darry is only a Greaser by association. At the rumble, he runs into a former friend of his that he played football with who is a Soc. This shows the only thing separating them is who they are friends with or associate with and how society sees them.
Filming the movie in Tulsa, Coppola added to the division by having the actors who played the Socs staying better hotels while the actors playing the Greasers had to stay in the basic motels. This caused tension between Lowe and Cruise, who got along well, but didn’t like having to share a room together. In the years since, Lowe has complimented Cruise’s commitment to the role saying that Coppola wanted them all to learn how to walk on their hands, but Cruise was the only one who took it seriously. He was able to watch on his hands in the movie. Cruise and Estevez became good friends and their friendship lasted years later that Cruise was hired as a cowboy extra during the climax of Young Guns starring Estevez.
Coppola also gave the actors playing the Socs better scripts that were binded, while the actors playing the Greasers were giving some scripts that had been stapled together and worn. Spike Lee would also use this same tactic when filming School Daze in the Atlanta metro area to cause tension between the lighter-skin black people and the darker-skinned black people.
Coppola film more things from the novel but the studio, Warner Bros., demanded cuts bringing it the rough draft from two hours and 11 minutes down to about an hour and a half with credits. This led to criticism from fans of the novel as Sodapop’s role is reduced. He’s actually has more going on than shown. Sodapop has a rocky relationship with his girlfriend. It also begins with a confrontation between the Greasers and the Socs as in the book. Tim Shepherd is used more. There’s also the court proceedings about Ponyboy’s role in the death of Bob. Later Ponyboy sees Cherry at school and she ignores him going back to something she says earlier in the movie. She had been friendly in court.
Not going to give away how the movie ends to those who haven’t seen it, but I can understand why the studio felt it was the appropriate ending. Coppola later released a longer version titled The Complete Novel adding in about 22 minutes of scenes that were cut or shorten as he had been receiving criticisms from fans on having left these parts out. The reason Ponyboy is writing in the composition notebook is his teacher said he had missed so much school he was going to fail, but allows him to turn in a good written theme to pass.
The movie was produced on a budget of $10 million and made over $33 million. It helped usher in a lot of more realistic teenage-themed movies in the 1980s. Lowe and Estevez went on to appear in St. Elmo’s Fire and became part of the Brat Pack. Estevez would later like Hinton’s other novel That Was Then… This is Now and get his father to buy the rights so he could write the screenplay and star in the film adaptation. It was filmed in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, the only of Hinton’s novels not to be filmed in Oklahoma.
Estevez would tie with Dillon at three roles with the most appearanced in Hinton’s novels to be adapted. After filming ended The Outsiders, Coppola would use much of the same cast and crew to adapt Rumble Fish. Hinton and Coppola actually worked on the script together. William Smith, who plays a store owner, and Tom Wait, who appears at the house party, in Outsiders would have bigger roles in Fish. Lane and Withrow would also appear in Fish, alongside Mickey Rourke, Dennis Hopper, Laurence Fishburne, Vincent Spano and Nic Cage. The movie was filmed mostly in black and white and shot more as an avant garde movie as Coppola used a lot of French new wave techniques and styles. Even though it got a lot of good reviews, it bombed at the box officer. Robert Evans, who had helped secure Coppola for The Godfather, wasn’t a big fan and bluntly said, “I couldn’t understand any of it.”
Coppola tried to turn The Outsiders into a TV series that would continue with the same characters. David Arquette would play Two-Bit with Jay R. Ferguson playing Ponyboy. Billy Bob Thornton and Leonardo DiCaprio also reportedly played in small roles on the show. It ran for 13 years in 1990 on Fox. While Coppola and Warner Bros. thanked Misakian and the students at Lone Star, the movie would have a bigger fan base from a rather unlikely area.
Danny Boy O’Connor, one of the founding members of House of Pain, was always a fan of both the movie and the book. He was able to purchased the same house used for the Curtises in the movie sight unseen. Unfortunately, the Tulsa area house had been falling apart. So O’Connor and others involved with the movie (including Howell and Dalton, who had become good friends despite playing adversaries) started a fund-raiser to get the house renovated and in 2019, it officially was opened as The Outsiders House Museum. (Incidentally, the drive-in featured in the movie had suffered damaged caused by a copper wire theft in 2010 and a similar fund-raising campaign was launched.)
The movie itself has entered the pop culture lexicon, not just for its cast, but for lines of dialogue like “Do it for Johnny” spoken by Dillion. And “Stay Gold, Ponyboy” is the title of a song by The Get Up Kids, as well as used in other media from time to time. Sofia Coppola appears briefly during a scene. ?Horror scream queen Heather Langenkamp, a Tulsa native, appears as an uncredited extra. A year later, she would get the lead in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Gailard Sartain, another Tulsa native, also appears as Jerry with the school kids at the church.
In the end, the movie itself after 40 years has taken on its own gold status for it’s Who’s Who of actors before they were famous as well as it’s themes of inclusion or social anxiety teenagers still face today. While most people might think of Oklahoma being cowboys and church picnics, the fact that it showed the same problems exists everywhere among young people is universal. And yet, people like Ponyboy and Two-Bit can hang out with Marcia and Cherry and someone like Randy can be compassionate toward Ponyboy even though his friend was killed by Johnny, it shows we only choose to divide ourselves based on socio-economic ties. It’s implied that Marcia likes Two-Bit and gives him her number but he thinks it’s a wrong number. Later, in the movie, she appears to be happy to see him.
It also shows young men who aren’t afraid of showing their emotions around others. There’s a big difference between being tough and being human. And we see how some characters can talk to each other but can’t talk to another character. Dally presents himself as a tough person but he’s actually weak and broken. Darry doesn’t have to be hard on his brothers, because they are going through the same grief and pain he is.
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