''I'm not a tinkerer,'' demurs Francis Ford Coppola. ''There are just a few things that, if I could, I'd like the chance to set right.'' Thus was born The Outsiders: The Complete Novel, some 22 minutes longer than the original 1983 youth classic about rumbling haves and have-nots (high-society ''Socs'' and hardscrabble ''Greasers'') in 1960s Tulsa. Perhaps this latest cinema revenant is no surprise, coming from the guy who once reedited his Godfather movies into a chronological saga and, more recently, released a new version of Apocalypse Now because its essential weirdness had been ''absorbed by the culture.'' And the cast an impossibly iconic collage that includes Patrick Swayze, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Diane Lane, Ralph Macchio, Emilio Estevez, and Matt Dillon certainly doesn't hurt.
But the director claims that his revisitation was prompted, like the original movie, by a letter. Lots of them, actually, all asking why key scenes from S.E. Hinton's ever-popular 1967 novel had been cut. ''Well, I got frustrated because I know why those scenes weren't included.'' Rumble Fish (adapted from another Hinton novel) was moving into production, the studio wanted cuts, and Coppola, overwhelmed and intimidated, slashed the print: ''Years later, I thought I really had maybe done it a disservice.''
Keenly aware of young peoples' collective ownership of the film (whose making was triggered by a student petition from a Fresno, Calif., junior high), Coppola set out to reinstate scenes that were dropped due to various exigencies like perceived audience homophobia. ''The scene with Rob Lowe, who was such a beautiful young kid, in bed with his brother [narrator Ponyboy, played by C. Thomas Howell] got titters from the preview audience,'' he recalls with light disgust. ''I don't know why. Brothers have always slept together. They have for hundreds of years. But it seemed to mislead people into thinking of it in a more erotic way. And the whole thing of these boys living together without parents, walking around in their underwear, drew some comment.''
Perhaps the most noticeable change is the new soundtrack, which cuts back on the velvety score by Coppola's late father, Carmine, substituting the rock & roll extravaganza that the director originally wanted. ''I listened to it later and thought, This is a little thick. Like a curtain. But I didn't feel comfortable removing his cues. I'd say, 'Hey, Dad, maybe we could use a little more Elvis Presley here.' There came a point where if I put in some more greaser music, it would then remove his. So I couldn't do it. On The Black Stallion, Carroll Ballard took out one of his cues, and my father never talked to him again in his whole life.'' That's a frightening prospect for a loyal son, no matter what age. But The Outsiders, after all, is about growing up and continuing to grow, one rerelease at a time.