"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.
“If you’re going to lead people, you have to have somewhere to go.”
- The Motorcycle Boy, Rumble Fish
“Read it again when you’re twenty-five, about one in the morning, on your third whiskey.” This is the advice S.E. Hinton gives young readers when they claim they didn’t understand Rumble Fish. Given that she invented the young-adult genre with her quintessential teen novel, The Outsiders, it’s surprising the author would suggest that one of her books may be more accessible to adults. Then again, Rumble Fish is deceptively simple on the surface, masking its depth with the simple-minded perspective of self-proclaimed tough guy, Rusty-James. It’s a narrative demanding we read between the lines, searching for meaning as elusive as the mysterious character known only as the Motorcycle Boy. Still, taking Hinton’s advice and revisiting the book as an adult confirms that time and experience (and whiskey, of course) impart a certain level of clarity, sparking awareness that the brooding Motorcycle Boy is as much the narrator of this story as Rusty-James. And, in turn, revealing that Hinton’s book is as much a reflection on the naiveté of youth as it is about living in the midst of it.
It was during production of The Outsiders – their first collaboration together – that Hinton and Francis Ford Coppola began writing the screenplay for Rumble Fish. Filmed back-to-back in 1983, many of the cast and crew remained on location in Tulsa, Oklahoma to continue working with the duo. Beyond some familiar faces, however, that’s where the similarities between the movies end. While filming The Outsiders, Coppola had started to feel boxed in by the classic Hollywood style that had made him a household name throughout the '70s (The Godfather, The Conversation). Daydreaming of a new approach, he set out to make what he referred to as an “art film for teenagers.” The result was Rumble Fish, a poetic, personal, and timeless interpretation of brotherhood and the alienation and displacement of youth.
Aside from aging up the characters, Coppola’s experimental vision enhances Hinton’s story without straying too far from the source material. Inspired by the silent film era and German expressionism, Coppola employed visual motifs to symbolize the passage of time, and to convey his own thesis on the naiveté of youth. Although street punk Rusty-James (Matt Dillon) may think that nothing can touch him, the constant presence of ticking clocks combined with dreamlike sequences of clouds speeding across the sky imply that even he's no match in the race against time. Adding a resonate monologue from Benny (Tom Waits) that doesn’t appear in the book, Coppola uses time as a rhythmic reminder of human mortality. The pulse of a percussive score by Stewart Copeland heightens the sense that time is building toward something of significance.
Of course, it was Hinton’s focus on the brothers that inspired Coppola’s personal connection with the book. Relating to Rusty-James’ blind adoration for the Motorcycle Boy, the director went on to dedicate the film to his older brother, August. In many ways, it’s the charismatic and mysterious older brother – played succinctly by Mickey Rourke – who becomes the star of the film. Even the stunning black and white photography suggests we’re viewing the world through his color-blind eyes. Flashes of color in pivotal scenes, like the moment in the pet store, illustrate not only the brothers’ vastly different perspectives, but the Motorcycle Boy’s hope that his little brother will stop trying so hard to mirror a past he regrets and, instead, find a way to escape their toxic environment.
In contrast to the novel, Rourke’s Motorcycle Boy is much more caring and paternal toward his little brother. Always subtly steering Rusty-James away from the destructive path of following in his footsteps. His musings about California and their long-lost mother feel designed to trick his brother into running toward a new life. Such nuances indicate that Coppola discovered an abundance of meaning between the lines of Hinton’s novel, and Rourke exquisitely conveys the turmoil inside the character whenever he looks at his little brother. There’s a certain amusement, distance, and no small amount of regret resting just beneath the surface in his performance.
Still, no one embodies S.E. Hinton’s brand of tough guy better than Matt Dillon. Appearing in three adaptations of her novels (Tex being the only one not directed by Coppola), Dillon somehow manages to encapsulate both the abrasive and vulnerable side of these boys from the wrong side of the tracks. Even alongside Rourke and a phenomenal supporting cast – including Dennis Hopper, Nicolas Cage, Vincent Spano, Diana Scarwid, and Diane Lane – it’s impossible to take your eyes off him when he struts across the screen.
Although Coppola’s innovative film may not have grabbed the attention of his intended audience right away, Rumble Fish continues to be embraced by new generations as they come of age. Proving there might be something to Hinton’s theory, after all, that with a little time and distance from the past, the way we see things starts to change.