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The Outsiders: from paper to screen

Collage by Anika Norton

In March of 1983, S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders was brought to life in theaters across the United States. Audiences filled with young adolescents were first to see what is now an 80s classic and classroom favorite. At the time not many big actors/actresses were featured. Matt Dillon, who established himself as a teen idol a couple of years prior, was the biggest name in the cast. As of 2022 however, the featured group is considered star-studded. Actors who were only rising stars then, such as Ralph Macchio, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Emilio Estevez, and Diana Lane all went on to be extremely successful. Most of them took their biggest roles a couple of years after appearing in The Outsiders.

The novel itself had been successful since its 1967 release, so one would assume reviews were promising from the beginning. Unfortunately, this was not the case. While the film brought in its fair share of positive takes, it didn’t have the easiest start. News outlets such as The Hollywood Reporter expressed discontent in the adaptation originally. With 1983 reviewer Robert Osborne stating, “...the director’s touch of class is consistently present, but it may be a case of the wrong man for the job,” and preceding to mention how Francis Ford Copalla executed the film in a “cliche” and “detached” way that debilitated the “ambiance and passion” of the plot. Thankfully, as years went by more critical reviews were proved minor in the big scheme of things, with both The Outsiders film and book still being appreciated by new readers to date.

And being one of those readers- plus having just watched the film, I too wanted to get in on the reviewing process. So grabbing my notebook, annotated book copy, and all the self-given credibility a 14-year-old can have, I’m ready to give my take on The Outsiders, from paper to film.

The Breakdown

A cover of the book, via IMDB

Everyone will have their own take on a film’s quality as there are different factors that make a piece great for different people. There is no true way to perfectly judge a film on a scale, though you can put the general movie up to simple questions. Those questions being about the writing, plot, acting, directing quality, and cinematography. In the case of a book-to-film adaptation, like The Outsiders, we add the constant comparison of how the original material translates to screen: The accuracy of it all. So to start the deep dive into The Outsiders, one should look at the writing and plot conversion first.

[[SPOILER WARNING: All of the following is a big giveaway for the story]]

Writing and Plot

It’s practically a given that when a book gets adapted into a movie, some details will not make it in. There’s only so much that can be translated on screen, so for how much it managed to include, The Outsiders movie adaptation is strong. The biggest cuts in the wide release were the ending trial scene, a lot of Sodapop’s character, and Ponyboy’s emotions (a version of his ending did not appear). There is a 2005 extended cut, however, which checks all these boxes. So if we’re to review the 2005 one the movie was almost accurate to a T. But going back to the original cut, without those scenes the movie was a bit less immersive and some characters fell short of main. A big part of the book’s wrap-up was Pony blaming himself for Johnny Cade's death and the killing of Bob Sheldon. The 1983 film really didn’t sum up his grief and how much of a toll that loss took on him. Although, the film did do a good job framing Dally Winston’s grief (Played by Matt Dillon), and the desperation of it all came through.

Ponyboy's hair. (Screenshot)

Other missing details that are less important were the switching of the book’s East and West side rivalry to a North and Southside rivalry, cutting the beginning jumping scene, and leaving out Sodapop’s girlfriend. Also the lack of screen time dedicated to Ponyboy fretting over his “tough tough” hair. Pony loves his hair and the movie did not express that nearly enough.

Still, even with all these quick cuts, The Outsiders remains an overall faithful adaptation with good writing and plot. Iconic lines from the book can be drawn out while watching the movie, the script taking many chunks of dialogue directly from S. E. Hinton’s writing.

Acting and Casting

Earlier in the article, many of the now-famous Hollywood cast members were listed but their performances in the film were not properly discussed. Truthfully, even though Ralph Macchio, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Emilio Estevez, and Diana Lane were all featured (wow that is a lot of names), not everyone got a fair amount of time in the sun; like Cruise, Swayze, and Lowe- who got no more than 15 minutes in the entire movie. The screen time cuts are attributed to editing decisions but for the short time many had, the young actors did a pretty amazing job. All performances were convincing even if they only had a couple of minutes in character. Actors C. Thomas Howell and Ralph Macchio however, carried the film. The plot circled mostly Ponyboy Curtis and Johnny Cade’s adventure and the 15-year-old Howell alongside 21-year-old Macchio worked well in each scene, though emotions did go blurry at times. Matt Dillon also had a rather large role as Dally and he too put on an exceptional show.

The character casting was on point, and aside from hair color (which was assumingly changed to add further division between greasers and socs) many of the boy’s features and mannerisms were fitting. The casting process itself was also interesting, director Copalla being very particular with on-screen chemistry. The released process on Youtube is definitely worth a watch, attached here.

That’s a wrap, folks!

Ideally one would also go further into directing, but to sum it up, despite emotion getting lost in scene occasionally, the shots were beautifully filmed and there were many prime moments. The poem scene was beautiful, the fandom continues to grow, and overall The Outsiders is worth the watch and read. So to all the Dally fans, Ponyboy plus Johnny speculators, and story lovers alike- it’s been fun. Stay gold my friends, stay gold.

The ending shot of the movie. (Screenshot)

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