"The Outsiders," Francis Coppola's droopily faithful movie version of S.E. Hinton's best-selling juvenile novel (4 million copies in the United States since 1967), is dedicated to the librarian of a junior high school in Fresno, Calif.

It was her letter, accompanied by a student body petition, urging Coppola to consider "The Outsiders" as a movie project that first attracted the celebrated moviemaker to this curiously inappropriate subject.

Hinton's book, a short, awkward, exceedingly soulful romance of teenage gang culture, set in Tulsa in the middle 1960s, has achieved a peculiar eminence, especially with preadolescent readers. I suspect that this admiring public, which includes a 9-year-old in my own household, is also predominantly feminine.

Begun when Susan Hinton was still a high school girl herself, "The Outsiders" seems very much a nice girl's fancy of what gang members ought to be like--basically misunderstood, sensitive and dreamy beneath the fac,ade of toughness and belligerence; in short, a legion of lost boys in need of comforting, understanding Wendy girls to console them.

If he were less enamored of the source, Coppola might have done "The Outsiders" an invaluable service by actually making belated dramatic repairs. Instead of starting with Hinton's characters and social setting and then filling in the missing links of motivation and causation, Coppola is content to treat the material like a holy text.

Opening today at area theaters, "The Outsiders" begins with the narrator, Ponyboy Curtis (C. Thomas Howell), a 14-year-old greaser with a literary spark, writing the novel's first sentence in his notebook. Among other drawbacks, this venerable cliche' heralding the unfolding of a Prestige Literary Adaptation tends to eliminate any conceivable suspense about Ponyboy's fate, since whatever the story is, he's apparently come through it unscathed.

There are two antagonistic gangs in the high school culture evoked by "The Outsiders"--the working-class boys, known as Greasers, who live on the north side of town, and the privileged, upper-middle-class kids, known as Socs (short for "Socials"), who reside on the affluent south side.

Ponyboy is the youngest of three orphaned brothers; the parents were killed some time ago in a collision with a locomotive (this tragedy is visualized by Ponyboy in a dream), and the older brothers, Darrel (Patrick Swayze) and Sodapop (Rob Lowe) have curtailed their educations in order to work and keep the clan together.

An almost identical situation became the basis for dramatically interesting conflicts and misunderstandings in Hinton's later novel "Tex." The sibling motif remains one of several undeveloped possibilities in "The Outsiders."

In perhaps the best sustained sequence in the movie, an evening of preliminary romantic manuevering at a drive-in showing the distraction-inspiring double-bill of "Beach Blanket Bingo" and "Muscle Beach Party," it appears that the old "Romeo and Juliet" theme will give direction to the narrative.

Diane Lane, as a Soc princess named Cherry Valance (no, I'm not making up these names), spurns the drunken boyfriend who brought her and strikes up an acquaintance with Ponyboy and his sidekick Johnny (Ralph Macchio, a beautiful dark-eyed camera subject and a very skillful young actor). Although she also brushes off their hoody friend Dallas, it's also clear that she's attracted to him.

Since Dallas is played by Matt Dillon, adding more assurance and humor to a presence that is already slightly transfixing on the strength of a facial bone structure and set of eyes that mesmerize the camera, it's also reasonable to expect the initial contact between Cherry and Dallas to lead somewhere.

Unfortunately, this prickly opening encounter is also the end of the relationship.

Hinton veers off on an abrupt melodramatic detour--Cherry's boyfriend, looking for trouble in a greaser neighborhood later that night, ends up fatally stabbed by Johnny after he and his Soc pals jump Ponyboy. This twist turns Ponyboy and Johnny into fugitives, like the principals in "Rebel Without a Cause," but again the plot takes an arbitrary turn, so nothing decisive hinges on their fugitive status.

Between the aimlessness of the plot and the marshmallow sponginess of the sentimental content, Coppola is left with ingredients every bit as defective and softheaded as the ones he overrated in "One From the Heart." This is another squishy one from the heart, I suppose, but the heart-of-darkness exertions of "Apocalypse Now" may have left Coppola in a suspended state of artistic convalescence.

"The Outsiders" works itself up into overstylized tizzies during things like the rumble sequence, but its overall energy level is alarmingly faint, and the failure to add new dimensions or new material to the Hinton original suggests an exhausted imagination.

Commercially, the film will no doubt sink or swim on the cutes of its young male leads. In that sweepstakes, Dillon would appear to have the inside track, with strong competition from Macchio on the outside.

As the jovial greaser called Two-Bit, Emilio Estevez, the exotically named son of Martin Sheen, makes a consistently funny, amiable impression. Considering the inertia of the vehicle itself, these personality kids really can't be too cute. THE OUTSIDERS, directed by Francis Coppola; screenplay by Kathleen Knutsen Rowell, based upon the novel by S.E. Hinton; music by Carmine Coppola; director of photography, Stephen H. Burum; edited by Anne Goursaud; produced by Fred Roos and Gray Frederickson for Zoetrope Films. The film is rated PG. THE CAST Dallas Winston....Matt Dillon Johnny Cade....Ralph Macchio Ponybody Curtis....C. Thomas Howell Darrel Curtis....Patrick Swayze Sodapop Curtis....Rob Lowe Cherry Valance....Diane Lane Bob Sheldon....Leif Garrett