When Ann Ciasullo exited the movie theater on March 25, 1983, she couldn’t help feeling a bit confused.
For months, she’d been waiting to see the film adaptation of novelist S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, a book that the preteen Ciasullo had adored since her sister bought her a used copy. The story of a rambunctious crew of teenage boys dealing with trying home lives and rich-kid rivals from across the tracks resonated with her on the page, but director Francis Ford Coppola’s big-screen version left out crucial scenes from Hinton’s book and was filmed in a distinctly old-fashioned style to her MTV-obsessed eyes.
“When you love a book, you want to see it portrayed well,” Ciasullo says. “As a teenager, I wasn’t sure how to understand either its omissions or its aesthetics.”
Ciasullo’s opinion of the film evolved in the years since (as did critical perception). The Outsiders was long seen as one of Coppola’s biggest artistic failures, even if it did give people their first glimpse of some of the era’s biggest future Hollywood stars, e.g., Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze. Ciasullo’s teenage obsession with the book and her academic obsession with the film’s take on Hinton’s 1967 classic eventually led the Gonzaga University professor of English and women’s and gender studies to write her first book.
The Outsiders: Adolescent Tenderness and Staying Gold arrived earlier this year as part of the publishing company Routledge’s “Cinema and Youth Cultures” series, joining works exploring youth culture through movies like American Graffiti, Halloween, The Breakfast Club and others. Ciasullo had read several books in the series and found their style and hyper-focused nature could be perfect for a dive into The Outsiders. She’s spent most of her career penning academic articles blending in a heavy dose of popular culture, so a short book that did the same didn’t seem too daunting.
“Over the years, I’ve written on seemingly disparate topics — Mad magazine, bromance films, the TV series Mad Men — but the one thing that they all have in common is that they’re pop culture narratives,” Ciasullo says. “I’m interested in how gender is represented in texts that I loved as a kid and as an adult, and that other people love, too.”
The Outsiders: Adolescent Tenderness and Staying Gold allowed Ciasullo to mine her academic expertise to examine how the movie stuck out from the crowd in the context of ’80s films geared toward young audiences, and not just because of Coppola’s direction. The young men in The Outsiders are openly affectionate with each other, as friends and brothers, and worlds apart from the homophobic, sex-obsessed teen boys populating other movies of the era like Porky’s and Risky Business.
The intimacy of the characters offered plenty of fodder for this gender-studies scholar to discuss, say, how certain shots in the film catered to the “heterosexual female gaze, and a gay one, too.” And the desire to combine the history of the film, its marketing positioning through teen magazines like 16, and its long-term cultural significance, gave Ciasullo an excellent excuse to indulge her self-proclaimed love of nostalgia.
In doing research for the book, Ciasullo mined libraries for old issues of teen magazines featuring the movie’s stars. She visited the Outsiders house in Tulsa, OK, one of the main sets for the film and now a museum, and attended a long weekend celebrating the movie that included screenings at a drive-in theater and movie house that both appear in the film. During her visits to the museum, she saw how the book and movie remain important for everyone from school kids still reading the novel to folks with grandkids who visit to recapture some nostalgia of their own.
“I made a wonderful group of friends there, most of whom were very different from me,” Ciasullo says. “It was really fun and humbling to hear their stories and I was in touch with several of them through the writing process. If I had follow-up questions, everyone was really receptive and engaged. It was very affirming.”
While she admits to being a bit sick of watching the movie repeatedly , Ciasullo adds that she “really came to feel a lot of affection for this film in retrospect. There’s something sweet and authentic and tender about it, and I think that’s the thing that makes it stand out.”
Ciasullo doesn’t have another book in the works and isn’t sure she’ll ever write another. But if she does, it will need to be something that’s been part of her life for a long time, something she’d be passionate about whether it was for work or for pleasure.
“I just want to write on things I care about, and have an emotional investment in, and do it in a smart but accessible way, one that engages a wide range of readers,” Ciasullo says.
Contributed by the Office of Marketing and Communications at Gonzaga University.
“The Outsiders: Adolescent Tenderness and Staying Gold” is available for purchase through its publisher, Routledge, and other outlets.