Books

12.22.13

Seriously, ‘Die Hard’ Was a Novel Before It Was a Movie and a Good One

Stump your friends. Win bets in bars. Yes, ‘Die Hard’ is based on a novel that’s been unjustly obscured by the film.

“The novel on the cutting room floor”

They are literature’s cold cases, the Missing and Presumed Dead. They are the unlucky novels and stories that inspired movies so successful that they eclipsed the originals almost completely.  Some books weather a subsequent movie’s success. Gone With the Wind survives as a classic film and a classic novel. But how many people know that before it was a movie, The Birds was a very good novella by Daphne Du Maurier, or that Forrest Gump is based on the novel Forrest Gump?

Good fiction deserves a better fate. By way of a modest corrective, this series  seeks out and showcases those obscured, forgotten novels and stories that gave their lives that movies might live, stories that were always at least as good as the well-known films they inspired and in more than a few instances, a lot better.

Who knew that, yes, Die Hard was a novel before it was a movie? Apparently almost no one, based on my crack polling techniques. But it’s right there in the credits, which I guess shows how many people read movie credits, since whenever I mention this fact, the reactions range from a simple “You’re kidding,” to a full-scale Danny Thomas spit take.

Nothing Lasts Forever was written by Roderick Thorp and published in 1979. Thorpe, who died in 1999 at the age of 62, wrote several crime novels. A few were turned into movies, including The Detective, starring Frank Sinatra and Lee Remick. The cop’s name in that story was Joe Leland, who reappeared in Thorp’s next novel, Nothing Lasts Forever. Then Nothing Lasts Forever became Die Hard, Leland was renamed John McClane, and you know what happened next.

In the end, though, the novel is much darker and more thoughtful, starting with the fact that Joe Leland is much older than John McClane.

I won’t argue that Die Hard is one of the greatest films ever made, but I would argue that it is one of the best crafted movies ever made. And it is compulsively watchable—repeatedly: if I channel surf past it on TV, I’ll back up and watch it through to the end. (I’ll do the same for The Lady Eve, The Killing, Alien, The Big Sleep and a few more—doesn’t everyone have movies like this? They’re not like movies, really, they’re more like family.)

With its generous quota of automatic weapons and breaking glass, Die Hard 2 is superficially like a zillion other action movies. But this one was made with more care than usual, and a lot more cleverness.

For example, I’ve always wondered whose idea it was to use Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” as the theme music for the bad guys? We first hear it as merely a rumble when the thieves drive their truck into the garage of the high-rise office building where we’ll be spending the rest of the movie. Over the next two hours, this lietmotif becomes a little more audible every time it recurs, until the moment the thieves open the Nakatomi Corporation’s vault, when it explodes on the soundtrack in all its full-throated glory.

That same attention to detail is everywhere in this film, from the dialogue to the big cast of characters, a cast that never seems all that big because each character is so swiftly etched into our consciousness. When Hans Gruber (played by the peerless Alan Rickman) strolls past the scale models of Nakatomi’s global holdings, he murmurs, “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer,” then, catching himself, smiles and says, “The benefits of a classical education.” So we learn, in only a sentence or two, that this is a supercilious rich kid who’s slumming as a terrorist and a crook.

Almost none of that is in the novel. Nor was there any pressing need in an action movie for the villain to paraphrase Plutarch (or is it Edward Marbury?). The filmmakers threw in all those details because they wanted to, and in the process turned a genre film into something vivid and often surprising.

Director John McTiernan and his screenwriters, Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, did make several deliberate changes in Thorp’s story. They made the bad guys thieves masquerading as terrorists, while in Thorp’s version, the terrorists are terrorists. They made sure no one we care much about gets killed. Thorp is more ruthless. They made John McClane a wise-ass. In short, they lightened the story up. You never feel bad about anyone who’s killed in the movie. You never have to think about what the terrorists’ agenda might be, or if there’s any validity to it. Die Hard is an extraordinarily adroit story, but at heart it’s a thrill ride masquerading as a movie.

Nothing Lasts Forever doesn’t stint on action. Most of the movie’s plot points are lifted straight from the book. And the novel, like the movie, moves forward with a delightful relentlessness. I recently began rereading it to check a few details and looked up 70 pages later wondering where the time had gone.

In the end, though, the novel is much darker and more thoughtful, starting with the fact that Joe Leland is much older than John McClane. The novel takes place in the 70s, and numerous times we are reminded that Leland was an ace in World War II, which would put him in his 50s at least. He’s divorced and his ex wife is dead. The woman he wants to save in the story is his daughter, from whom he’s considerably more estranged than McClane is from Holly in the movie. And in the book, Leland isn’t even a cop anymore. He’s a security consultant.

A lot of what happens in Nothing Lasts Forever isn’t filmable because it takes place in Leland’s mind, and that mind is a very dark place. In every way that counts, Leland is alone. He’s by himself when the story begins—flying alone on Christmas Eve, how alone is that? He’s no longer a cop, no longer a member of any collegial staff or workforce. He’s single, and suddenly he’s in California, where he feels out of place.

As the action escalates, he feels even more solitary. He knows he can’t trust the terrorists, but he can’t even tell if he can trust the cops, or the media, or anyone but himself. And he’s not even sure about that. Paranoia is a major player in the novel.

In the movie, John McClane was like Wile E. Coyote. No matter how many times he got blown up, he dusted himself off and went back to killing bad guys. Every time Joe Leland climbs another flight of stairs, he feels his age a little more. He is, not to put too fine a point on it, a desperate man. And a sad one.

Near the end of the story, Leland reflects: “No forgiveness—never any forgiveness in life. What did it say of a man, if he outlived all the women who had ever loved him? A man like him, with a gun in his hand? What did a gun mean, except death?”

Die Hard ends with John McClane reunited with his wife in the back of a limo while Bing Crosby sings “Let It Snow.” But long before that, Die Hard was a novel called Nothing Last Forever, and a very good novel at that. Now you know.