When Susan Eloise Hinton published The Outsiders in 1967, it was under the androgynous moniker S.E. Hinton, so readers wouldn't get hung up on the incongruity of a woman writing such an ostensibly masculine novel. Yet while the hoods in Hinton's book don't sing or dance like those in West Side Story, they nevertheless seem conspicuously in touch with their feminine sides. In hindsight, The Outsiders seems like a feminine fantasy of greasers who appear tough on the outside, yet quiver with emotion, recite poetry, admire sunsets, read Gone With The Wind aloud, and don't think twice about shedding tears or exchanging three-sided hugs. The new DVD release of an extended cut of The Outsiders takes the tenderness and homoeroticism of Hinton's novel even further, most glaringly in an originally cut scene where brothers Rob Lowe and C. Thomas Howell spoon in bed like an old married couple.
Howell leads a formidable cast of pretty boys as a sensitive hood caught in a war between the working-class "Greasers" and preppy "Socs" that turns deadly after Howell's pal Ralph Macchio accidentally kills a Soc. In the double-disc set's fascinating special features, director Francis Ford Coppola claims he set out to make a teen Gone With The Wind, as well as an homage to teen classics like Rebel Without A Cause, complete with gorgeous Cinemascope compositions and Carmine Coppola's lush score. It also appears that he set out to repeat The Godfather's feat of transforming a pulpy bestseller into high art. Yet for all the craft, conviction, and energy he brings to The Outsiders, it stubbornly remains pulp, albeit exquisite pulp, in part because Coppola remains too faithful to the novel's mawkish earnestness. While all the talk of sunsets as a metaphor for the ephemeral glory of youth seems clunky and obvious, the novel's enduring popularity serves as a reminder of how potent clunky and obvious emotions can be.
Coppola's second Hinton adaptation of 1983, Rumble Fish, centers on another hood who's brutish on the outside, yet imbued with an almost feminine vulnerability. As played by Mickey Rourke in full-on young-Brando mode, the film's tragic hero is a beatific loner too pure for a corrupt adult world. Little brother Matt Dillon longs to follow in Rourke's footsteps, but Rourke seems to care only about a pair of fighting fish whose leaden symbolism makes The Outsiders' sunset talk seem subtle by comparison. Where Coppola aspires to epic grandeur with The Outsiders, in Rumble Fish, he aims for the claustrophobic-nightmare world of film noir and German Expressionism. Shot in glorious black and white, with shadows painted onto the walls, Rumble Fish is a visual triumph marred by dialogue that at best boasts a pulpy panache, but more often just seems ripe and overheated. Coppola set out to make an art film for kids, but ends up indulging Hinton's most egregious pretensions. Like the novel on which it's based, Coppola's Outsiders appears destined to remain a cherished favorite of young people, while Rumble Fish seems doomed to stay an arty misfire.