When Francis Ford Coppola made The Outsiders in 1983, he was in the midst of yet another career paradigm shift. Having broke the bank on the gargantuan semi-failures Apocalypse Now and One from the Heart, he turned to adapting a pair of S.E. Hinton novels – which he hyperbolically termed ‘Camus for kids’ – first this one and then Rumble Fish. The Outsiders was relatively cheap, and also brought Coppola back to a kind of human drama that his post-Godfather work had been lacking, the result enrapturing a good number of teens and pre-teens in the 1980s. Coppola can never leave well enough alone, though, and so now we have his new version, The Complete Novel, overall a case in point for directors not being allowed to do this sort of thing.
The original film takes Hinton’s spare 1967 novel of young gangs in Tulsa and turns it into grand melodrama, with gorgeous CinemaScope sunsets, sweeping orchestral score, and teen scuffles that take on all the clashing importance of medieval battles. On the crap side of town live the working-class greasers, with their black t-shirts and slicked-back hair, always getting hassled by the socs, preppie bastards with family money and nicer cars. The film centers on the greasers, particularly the sensitive 13-year-old orphan Ponyboy Curtis (C. Thomas Howell) who lives with his older brothers Sodapop (Rob Lowe) and Darrell (Patrick Swayze). The surrogate family hanging around the Curtis’ ramshackle house also includes Emilio Estevez and Tom Cruise, while their friend, born-to-lose Dally Winston (Matt Dillon) has just been released from jail. Almost as childlike as Ponyboy is his best friend, Johnny (Ralph Macchio), an angelically bruised kid from a troubled home who provides the film’s most emotional moments.
The storyline is an erratic one at best, though it starts well. After a full night of run-ins with the socs, Ponyboy and Johnny finally get cornered by them in park, where Johnny knifes one to death in self-defense. They head out of town, with help from conveniently knowledgeable Dally, hiding in a remote abandoned church where they cut their hair, read Gone with the Wind, watch sunsets, and wait for the heat to die down. A chain of tragedy follows, from a fire to a climactic rumble in the rain to heart wrenching hospital scenes, none of it ending well for the kids from the wrong side of the tracks. While much of it may seem laughable at times to older viewers, there’s an undeniable primal quality to the film’s portrait of perennially disenfranchised poor kids, and the heartrending quality of Johnny – Macchio’s wide, terrified eyes are hard to shake – is like something out of Dickens.
What Coppola did right in his initial cut of 90-odd minutes, was to prune away some of the book’s character-building scenes, which didn’t play out too well with his inexperienced but powerfully energetic and Adonis-gorgeous cast. For all those who complained about the film being not faithful enough to the source material, Coppola reintegrated about twenty minutes of material, some good and some bad. Of the better additions is the fleshing out of the opening sequence in which Ponyboy is tailed by socs home from the movie theater, providing now a better introduction to his fringe, alienated world. Worse is the padding added to the end, including a long trial scene and an unduly tidy wrap-up with the three Curtis boys.
Nothing damages Coppola’s initial vision, however, as much as his removing the score done by his father Carmine. In the original film, the lush symphonies worked with the beautiful cinematography to give the story – which could seem slight and inconsequential to some – a timeless quality, punching up the already wonderfully florid emotions to an appropriately Rebel Without a Cause level. Now, The Complete Novel cut uses almost entirely rock music of the era, including a half-dozen Presley tunes and far too much surf guitar. This works on occasion, especially early on in the film, but as it goes on, the new music cues strip away the overheated feelings that Carmine’s score evoked and actually makes some previously moving sequences almost laughable. The result is a film that can’t decide if it’s a teen exploitation flick or a classic story of alienation and ends up being neither.
Coppola hasn’t managed to ruin his best film of the 1980s, this is too potent material for that, but he did seriously wound it.
The Complete Novel is packaged in a nice two-disc edition, with a gorgeous new widescreen transfer, 10 additional scenes, and several excellent documentaries, including one about the California students whose petition to Coppola gave him the initial idea to make the film.