The Outsiders: The Complete Novel Review

Tulsa, Oklahoma, the early 1960s. Ponyboy Curtis (C. Thomas Howell) lives with his older brothers Sodapop (Rob Lowe) and Darrell (Patrick Swayze). When a gang of “Socs”, from the more well-off part of town, attack Ponyboy and his friend Johnny (Ralph Macchio), in the fight one of the Socs is killed and Ponyboy and Johnny go on the run.

Susan Eloise Hinton wrote The Outsiders while still a teenager. On her publisher’s advice, she used her initials for the same reason that Joanne Kathleen Rowling did thirty years later, so as not to discourage teenage boys from reading a novel written by a woman. The novel was published in 1967, is studied in schools and has never been out of print. A Californian high school class and their librarian wrote to Francis Coppola suggesting that he make the book into a film. Coppola, at this time recovering from the failure of One From the Heart had not heard of the book, but he read it and saw its potential. The screenplay is credited to Kathleen Knutsen Rowell, but Coppola rewrote it considerably. The film was a modest success, but is notable for introducing many future stars – to assemble this cast today would blow almost any conceivable budget.

The Outsiders is an odd film: like the novel, it’s an unashamedly romanticised look at adolescent boys, who are given to quoting poetry and gazing at sunsets. As a gritty look at teen gangs, it’s as close to reality as West Side Story, and just as stylised. You can’t deny how well made it is – Stephen Burum’s camerawork is frequently stunning – but if you don’t buy into the look and feel of it, it may well provoke sniggers and is certainly not for cynics. Given the cast, including many a pin-up, I suspect that teenage girls were a bigger audience for this than their brothers and boyfriends. You could describe the result as distinctly homoerotic, but that’s a problematic word to use, as this is a young woman’s view of boys and young men: it’s a female fantasy, far more emotion-driven than the boys’ view of themselves would be. You sense that Coppola, despite being the director and (uncredited) writer is putting himself in the service of Hinton’s vision. He films this in a distinctly retro manner, deliberately harking back to 50s melodramas like East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause in the heightened colours and the use of that quintessentially 50s format, Scope. This visual approach reminds me of another film made around the same time, Fassbinder’s final work Querelle, though there – for an admittedly entirely different audience - the lushness is riper and more decadent, the homoeroticism more graphically portrayed. With Coppola’s next collaboration with Hinton, Rumble Fish he deliberately went in the opposite direction: futuristic look and feel, black and white instead of colour, “flat” instead of Scope. Hinton cameos as a nurse while Coppola’s daughter Sofia (billed as “Domino”) and Tom Waits make brief appearances. Stevie Wonder sings the title song, “Stay Gold”.

Following the film’s release in 1983, Coppola received letters asking why particular scenes from the novel were missing. This material had been shot, but had been cut to make the film shorter: on release, it ran 91 minutes. Coppola has re-edited The Outsiders, reinstating twenty-two minutes of this footage, most of it at the beginning and ending. This does have the effect of establishing characterisation better. Coppola has also removed most of his father Carmine’s saccharine string-laden score, which was a major irritant in the shorter version, and replaced it with a series of rock ‘n’ roll songs from the era. I’ll put my hand up and say that I’ve only seen the original version once before (on television, some ten years ago) and don’t remember it very well, so can’t make detailed comparisons, but at the very least the film doesn’t seem overlong. Presumably this director’s cut will be the standard version from now on, as the theatrical cut isn’t included in this DVD set. Perhaps it should have been for completist reasons at least, or for any fans of Carmine Coppola’s original score, if there are any. The additional scenes are indicated on the scene selection menu by asterisks.

The “complete novel” of The Outsiders is released on two discs, a DVD-9 containing the film with two commentaries, plus a DVD-5 with extras. The discs are encoded for Region 1 only.

The Outsiders is transferred anamorphically-enhanced in a ratio of 2.40:1. If you haven’t seen this film in Scope, then you haven’t seen it properly. Coppola and Burum frequently use the whole width of the frame, if only to fit in that large cast. By the mid-80s, almost anyone shooting Scope with anamorphic lenses had to compose their shots so they could be cropped for TV and video into 4:3 and did so, more or less blatantly. (For really obvious examples of 80s “TV Scope”, see almost anything directed by Blake Edwards.) This DVD transfer shows why so many directors and DPs love the anamorphic format, particularly for a lushly coloured, smooth-grained period piece like this: gritty realism is not on the agenda here. The transfer looks great: sharp and strongly coloured. Given the intended 50s look, there’s less shadow detail than you might expect in some scenes.

The soundtrack is remixed from the original Dolby Stereo into Dolby Digital 5.1. There's quite a lot of use of the surrounds, for music and ambience and some directional effects. The subwoofer is called into action to fill in the bass lines of the music score and contributes to the fire scene, and odd moments such as a car's tyres crunching on gravel. There are thirty-two chapter stops. Subtitles are available for the feature only; the English versions are not of the hard-of-hearing variety.

The first commentary is by Francis Ford Coppola solo. It’s a worthwhile listen, although he begins to repeat himself over the two hours. As with his Rumble Fish commentary, he goes into a Proud Dad routine when Sofia Coppola appears on screen (it’s the highlight of the film for him) but if this is irksome, note that her role is rather smaller in this film. The second commentary is from “Four Greasers and a Soc”, namely Matt Dillon, C. Thomas Howell, Diane Lane, Rob Lowe, Ralph Macchio and Patrick Swayze. This is a more light-hearted affair, with plenty of reminisces (I lost count how many times people couldn’t remember filming certain scenes). Dillon seems more interested in the technical aspects than the others, spotting split-diopter shots and other things. Diane Lane is told she’s gorgeous several times.

The extras on the second disc kick off with “Staying Gold: A Look Back at The Outsiders” (26:24). This follows a similar format to its equivalent on the Rumble Fish DVD, comprising interviews with Coppola, Hinton, Burum and several of the cast, mixed with extracts from the film and behind-the-scenes footage. This has an afterword, dealing with Coppola’s new version of the film and his inviting some of the cast to his home in California for what looks like a wonderful meal and a screening of the director’s cut.

In “S.E. Hinton on Location in Tulsa” (7:33), the author shows us the real-life locations in her home town, such as the school she was attending when she wrote the novel and the drive-in where a key scene takes place. “The Casting of The Outsiders (13:57) details the extended casting process, much of it being video footage from the time, so don’t expect great picture quality. You usually don’t get to see unsuccessful screen tests on DVD, for reasons of professional protocol, so it’s fascinating to see the very young Helen Slater, Kate Capshaw, Adam Baldwin and Anthony Michael Hall trying out for roles in this film. Producer Fred Roos, who has worked with Coppola since The Godfather and has had a lot of input into casting, is the main interviewee here.

Next up, seven cast members (Lowe, Swayze, Howell, Dillon, Macchio, Garrett and Lane) read extracts from the novel. These can either be selected individually from a menu screen laid out like a high school yearbook, or there is a “play all” option (7:23). This does seem redundant. If rights (and potential purchase price) had permitted, it might have been better to have enclosed a copy of the novel with the DVD, in either paper or audio format.

An extract from NBC’s News Today from 1983 (4:44) covers the story of how Fresno, California, high school librarian Jo Ellen Misakian organised a petition three years earlier and sent it to Coppola. Some of the students from the time returned for the occasion, and are interviewed, as is Mrs Misakian (to whom the film is dedicated) and Coppola. Swayze and Howell also attended, and Swayze makes a point of thanking the students for inspiring a film which had a big impact on his career. This item is on pretty ropey 80s video and is riddled with artefacts.

Six deleted or extended scenes follow, material which was removed first time round and didn’t make it back into this longer version. These are “Pony Gets Jumped and Dallas Gets Released” (1:33), “Fugitives in the Church” (1:53), “The Curtis Brothers Reunite” (2:39), “Pony and Dallas Visit [two words deleted to avoid a major spoiler]” (0:29), “Pony Calls His Teacher” (3:57) and “We’re Disguised” (1:35). There’s no “play all” option. All but the last are non-anamorphic 2.40:1 and come from a timecoded video source. “We’re Disguised” seems to have been sourced from film and is anamorphic. Finally, there’s the theatrical trailer from 1983 (1:11) and a set of DVD credits.

The Outsiders has had a mixed reaction over the years, which may be due to national sensibilities. Unless you have or had a crush on any of the lead actors, I suspect the mixture of unabashed romanticism which more than borders on sentimentality, presented straight without any obvious irony, doesn’t really chime with the majority of British viewers. Of Coppola’s two Hinton adaptations, many would probably prefer the very different, much darker, but far less commercial Rumble Fish. Looking back, Coppola was in decline from the heights of his 70s work. He certainly had much further to fall, but there were some interesting stops along the way. That said, there’s plenty of interest from a filmmaking point of view, and the additional material does improve the film as narrative and not least removes the awful music score. The Outsiders is neither Coppola’s greatest work nor his worst, but this new version gives us the chance to reassess it.

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