"The book was better" is a phrase heard often in conversations about book-to-film adaptations. "Don't judge a book by its movie" is another common jab. While we've all uttered some version of this sentiment at one point or another, there have been those rare occasions when the opposite is true. As a lifelong bookworm and cinephile, I've discovered that whether I read the book before or after seeing the movie can have a profound influence on my enjoyment of the story across both mediums. In this column, I’ll be checking out old and new adaptations to further explore both sides of that experience. In the process, I hope to unveil how these two vastly different mediums work together to tell the same story, from cover to credits.
“Most grownups don’t know about the battles that go on between us.”
- S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders
After fifty years and more than fifteen million copies sold, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders remains a constant on school reading lists. In the late '60s, fifteen-year-old Susan Eloise Hinton was so unimpressed with the narratives representing her generation that she decided to write her own. A departure from stories about going to prom and young love, her novel highlighted the turmoil and injustices of being a teenager. Inspired by the rival gangs in her Tulsa, Oklahoma high school, Hinton’s teenage perspective taps directly into the angst and isolation of youth, bringing an authenticity to her characters that is still relevant and resonating today.
A self-described tomboy, Hinton felt more comfortable writing from a male perspective and chose to publish The Outsiders under her initials to avoid alienating male readers. Maintaining the illusion, she begins and ends the novel with the same passage (“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight…”) to suggest it was written by her fourteen-year-old protagonist, Ponyboy Curtis. Appealing to young readers regardless of gender, the narrative follows the ups and downs of Pony’s life as a greaser. Distinguishable by their long greasy hair and bad reputations, greasers are constantly battling the upper-class Socs (short for Socials), who parade around town flaunting their privilege. The novel’s appeal to teenagers stems from its raw and relatable themes. Hinton covers all the teen angst bases, from unrequited crushes to child abuse and neglect. But the most powerful message is that "things are rough all over." The author uses the social divide and violence between the two gangs to represent one of the most unfortunate aspects of the human condition -- the inability to empathize and accept each other's differences.
Some may groan at the mere mention of The Outsiders, having been “forced” to read it in either middle school or high school. However, it was the increasing demand for Hinton’s novel by faculty and students that not only launched the Young Adult genre in literature, it launched the making of the film. In 1980, Francis Ford Coppola received an interesting letter from a middle-school librarian, Jo Ellen Mosakian. Enclosed was a copy of the book and a petition signed by over one hundred students nominating him to turn it into a feature. Upon reading the novel, Coppola saw its potential to connect with young audiences. In 1983, he dedicated his film adaptation to Mosakian and the student body of the Lone Star School in Fresno, California.
A beautifully shot and faithful adaptation, the success of Coppola’s feature relies heavily on the charisma of its young cast. Since Hinton’s characters are the backbone of the story, it was important to find up-and-coming actors capable of encapsulating both their physical and emotional essence. Most of the ensemble was relatively unknown at the time, allowing them the opportunity to embody the characters without preexisting expectations. While there are some slight variations from Hinton's descriptions, in retrospect it's amazing how pitch-perfect the casting was: Patrick Swayze as “broad shouldered and muscular” Darrel (Darry) Curtis; Rob Lowe as “movie-star kind of handsome” Sodapop Curtis; Tom Cruise as “cocky, smart” Steve Randle; Emilio Estevez as “wisecracker” Two-Bit Matthews; Matt Dillon as “tougher than the rest” Dallas Winston; and Ralph Macchio as “everyone’s kid brother” Johnny Cade. Diane Lane is stunning as diplomatic Soc Cherry Valance and C. Thomas Howell shines as dreamy narrator Ponyboy.
Celebrating its 35th anniversary yesterday, the film is now a constant companion to the novel in school curriculums. Both Howell and Macchio have visited classrooms around the world each year since its release to talk with teenagers about their experiences portraying Ponyboy and Johnny. While filming, S.E. Hinton’s presence on set was invaluable to both Coppola and the cast. Her cameo as Dally’s nurse leaves an impression and despite not being credited as the screenwriter, she insists that she and Coppola “wrote the screenplay together.” Shortly after filming on the movie wrapped, she and the director went on to adapt her novel Rumble Fish. Obviously, her capability as an author translates into enduring cinematic gold. In the fiftieth anniversary edition of the novel, Tommy Howell admits that he's still referred to as Ponyboy by fans, friends, and even family members. Having played the part at the age of fourteen, the fifty-one-year-old actor muses that, at this point, the moniker “feels almost as comfortable as [his] own name.” In the film, the characters often speak dialogue lifted directly from the page. Coppola’s beautiful and talented young cast embodied Hinton’s outsiders so impeccably that it’s now impossible to read the book without seeing their faces.
In The Outsiders, Hinton uses Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” as a testament to the impermanence of youth. Inspiring Johnny's famous last words to Ponyboy, the sentiment “stay gold” is still being tattooed, screen-printed, and shouted from the rooftops five decades later. Yet, in the same novel, a teenage girl longing for a narrative she can relate to laments that “grownups don’t know the battles that go on between us.” In an era when battles are still beginning and ending in tragedy on the proverbial playground, it’s important we all remember what our youth face every day. Teenagers still relate to Ponyboy, because he is surviving while seeking a better existence. He’s realizing that “things are rough all over” and, more importantly, that he doesn’t have to accept the way things are simply because that’s the way they’ve always been. He knows that staying gold does not mean remaining stagnant.