As a book movie, The Outsiders is extremely faithful to the original story; the same things happen to the same people and the characters' personalities and even appearances are just as the author described them. The movie takes place during the early/mid-1960s in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The basic premise is that there's a feud between the rich teenage boys who live on the north side of town and the poor ones who live on the south side of town. They're nicknamed the Greasers and the Socs (the latter I'm assuming is short for "socialite").
The movie focuses on the three Curtis brothers, who are also Greasers: Darryl (or Darry), Sodapop, and Ponyboy. Darry, played by Patrick Swayze, has just been hit with a lot of responsibilities he wasn't prepared for. Mr. and Mrs. Curtis died in a car accident and Darry became the legal guardian of his two younger brothers. The family can stay together as long as Sodapop and Ponyboy don't get into trouble; if they do, they'll be taken away from Darry and set to a boys' home. Sodapop (Rob Lowe) dropped out of high school and works at a gas station with his best friend; he's sensitive and hates it when his brothers argue. He can't take sides even though Darry and Ponyboy want him to. Ponyboy (C. Thomas Howell) is the baby of the family. He's book smart, but doesn't always use his head for common sense, something that annoys Darry to no end. Ponyboy is quiet and likes to read.
The Curtis brothers have a gang of friends they hang out with, guys they've known most of their lives:
- Two-Bit (Emilio Estevez) sporting his trademark sideburns and hair greased into a pompadour. He's the clown of the group and has some great one-liners.
- Sodapop's best friend Steve. Steve wasn't a great guy in the book and Tom Cruise's portrayal makes him less likable and even more stupid (if you can believe that). I think the reason Steve comes across so stupid in the movie is because Tom tried to fake a Southern accent. He slurred his words so much he sounded more like he'd had a few too many drinks. The movie contains a bit of what I see as foreshadowing into Tom's later career. In one scene, Steve comes to the Curtis house for breakfast; he sits on the back of the couch and puts his feet all over the couch cushions.
To be honest, the first half of the gang is almost irrelevant. The ones you see the most of are Johnny Cade and Dallas Winston, played by Ralph Macchio and Matt Dillon, respectively. The character of Dallas is a far cry from the lovable, victimized husband that Matt played in You, Me, and Dupree and just a shade lighter than the racist, groping cop he played in Crash. Dallas isn't much older than anyone else in the gang, but he comes off older because of his attitude. Dallas more or less raised himself on the streets of New York City and has been in and out of jail for years. He has a scary personality and doesn't really care about anyone else...with the exception of Johnny Cade.
Johnny is sixteen years old and often mistaken for being younger because he's small for his age. Dallas and the others look after him because Johnny's parents are both abusive alcoholics. Johnny's skittish and almost never says a word. He hero-worships Dallas because he thinks Dallas is everything he'll never be; Dallas is tough, respected, feared, and always seems to know what to do. However, even though he idolizes Dallas, Johnny's best friend is Ponyboy.
Because of the many intricate layers of Johnny Cade, I imagine this was a tricky role to cast. Francis Ford Coppola made the right call in picking Ralph Macchio. I feel his acting abilities really shine in this movie. Ralph manages to come across as a shy, vulnerable person who's been dealt a bad hand in life without seeming like a self-pitying loser.
An innocent trip to the drive-in with Dallas culminates in an event that will change everyone's life, especially Johnny's and Ponyboy's, forever. They sit with two Soc girls and are chased by their boyfriends Bob and Randy for "trying to pick up on our women." They find Johnny and Ponyboy in a park. While Bob and Randy attempt to drown Ponyboy in the fountain, a couple of other boys kick Johnny. Cornered and frightened for his friend, Johnny pulls out his switchblade and stabs Bob to death. He and Ponyboy go to Dallas and tell him what happened. Dallas tells them to hop a freight train and hide out in an abandoned church a few towns over.
If you plan on renting or buying this movie, I recommend that you get the Complete Novel Edition. It contains a director's cut of the movie, which will help further explain things to those unfamiliar with the novel. There's a good making-of documentary, interviews with the cast, and funny DVD commentary. I found the audition tapes particularly intriguing; if some of the actors had been cast in one of the roles they initially read, the movie would not have been as good as it is.