The Book was Better: There Once was a Greaser Named Ponyboy
Little did S.E. Hinton know what The Outsiders was going to do to her life when she penned her acclaimed novel at the age of sixteen. Little did she know what The Outsiders would do to every teenager’s life in America, for the next 51 years. And, it’s certain, that no one could know what The Outsiders would do for a genre that did not even really exist: YA (cue angelic music here).
The Outsiders is now a beloved classic in teenage literature. It is read in thousands of schools across the nation. Yeah, I taught it to my seventh graders too. It’s one of the easiest books to get a reader—even a reluctant reader—to come along with you on. Though I was not a greaser in Oklahoma, I knew exactly how Ponyboy felt when I read The Outsiders for the first time in eighth grade. We all did.
We were there on the eastside of town, asking ourselves why someone has to be judged so harshly and so quickly just because of a lousy haircut? We were asking ourselves if the Curtis brothers were going to make it on their own? We were definitely asking ourselves, what did Robert Frost really mean? Don’t worry, our English teachers all helped us figure it out.
The film, The Outsiders, was released in 1983, sixteen years after its literary debut. And, yeah, it’s pretty good. I mean, it’s difficult not to love those famous actors, all budding actors back then, take on the Socs and the world.
But the book was better.
The film is not Ponyboy’s story. The film is actually Johnny and Dally’s story. Though Ponyboy still narrates the film to an extent, he becomes a bystander in the middle of most of the action. He’s an observer. Now, you can argue that he takes on the same role in the book. But with a lack of Ponyboy’s own insight into society, the injustices of being labeled a “greaser,” but not wanting to be associated with the “hoods” in town, and his realization that he actually can better himself in the film, the movie loses focus on Ponyboy and follows more closely Dally and Johnny.
But The Outsiders is not supposed to be their story. Dally and Johnny represent two sides to the greaser coin: one is tougher than nails and aloof to the world, the other scared of his own shadow, yet wants to still make his life mean something—and does. Dally and Johnny symbolize the atrocities that accompany growing up as a greaser. They have little to no options given to them in life, and so both lives eventually end, one a hero, one a hoodlum. The problem with the focus of the film being too centered on Dally and Johnny, is who is supposed to learn the lesson? Two-Bit?
In a story, whether it be a film or a novel, the protagonist needs to the star of his own story, and with Ponyboy’s passive take on the events around him in the movie, the audience just can’t see that Ponyboy is ever going to leave the north side (the eastside in the book).
Interestingly enough, Ponyboy’s character is not the only one who is downplayed in the movie. Where is Sodapop Curtis? Ponyboy’s older brother, whom he hero-worships, is so important to Ponyboy’s growth, especially at the end, where Soda is able to bring the Curtis brothers together with his unlikely voice of reason.
The readers of The Outsiders know that these brothers are going to A-Okay, but in the film, the strained, yet vital bond (as they are the only characters who seem to have a strong familial relationship of any of the characters) the Curtis brothers have is so glossed over, that the audience doesn’t have any thought about comparing them to other character’s familial relationships, because it’s so shallow. And who wouldn’t have loved more scenes with Patrick Swayze and Rob Lowe?
Yes, The Outsiders is a fine movie, but the lack of focus (and depth, don’t forget) on the important characters and their characterization is really what does it. The book was better.
What’d you think? Was the book better?