When Die Hard was released in 1988, it was a rebuke to the kind of action film Hollywood was churning out to increasingly ludicrous ends. As detailed by Tom Breihan in his A History Of Violence column, John McTiernan’s film zagged where other blockbusters had zigged: the action was fairly small-scale, confined to a single skyscraper; it hewed unusually close to the laws of physics and biology in that the stunts aren’t completely impossible and the characters stayed hurt; and, most importantly, the hero was recognizably human, not an unstoppable mass of muscles. John McClane, a cop who focused on stealth and strategy as he staged a one-man counter-insurgency against a terrorist takeover, was not your typical action hero. He got scared, made mistakes, had flaws, and doubted his abilities.
This was groundbreaking for movies at the time, and is still pretty rare. Not only are literal superheroes the headliners of today, but McClane himself would devolve into an unstoppable killing machine, doing things in 2013 that would’ve pulverized the ’80s version.
These attributes were not unprecedented for books, however, including Nothing Lasts Forever, the Roderick Thorp novel turned into Die Hard. Forever is an airport potboiler, the closest literary equivalent to Hollywood blockbusters, although the two have a key difference: Books have more space to fill (400 pages, say, as opposed to two action-heavy hours), and they’re more internal, as books—regardless of whether they have first- or third-person narration—tend to be. An anxious and complex action hero broke with Hollywood trends, but was nothing new on the page. Meanwhile the distinctive things Thorp brought to the table were almost uniformly excised in the shift from book to film. They would have diluted the kind of rebellious film McTiernan was making, so they had to go.
The book and film are alike in broad strokes. All the major action beats, from jumping off the roof and throwing C4 down an elevator shaft, survived the transition intact. Both are set around Christmas. Some things were invented for the screen: In the book there’s a fast-talking driver, but he disappears early, unlike the film’s Argyle. And while the book has some nods to the idea of Leland as a cowboy, McClane’s famous catchphrase comes from screenwriters Jeb Stuart and Steven De Souza. But ultimately the two versions are recognizably related. There are name changes: The film’s Nakatomi is Klaxon in the book, and John McClane is Joe Leland, a recurring Thorp character. Forever is a sequel to the novel The Detective, and there are a couple of callbacks to that book, particularly Leland’s guilt over sending an innocent man to the chair. Obviously, those don’t come up in the film.
The changes separating the two are small but result in a meaningfully different experience. The terrorists in the film are simple robbers, but they’re politically driven in the book, targeting Klaxon for its support of the Chilean government. These motives aren’t exactly explored in depth, but they’re more complex than Die Hard’s team of professionals, and because the book’s villains are seen with a measure more sympathy, the pleasure of rooting against them is shaded. The book’s crew includes a number of young guerrillas, who Leland kills with a twinge, knowing they didn’t realize what they signed up for. (There are also female terrorists: “I’m almost getting used to it,” Leland says as he kills his third woman.) Director John McTiernan intentionally and wisely made a morally black-and-white game of cat and mouse. Hans Gruber is an iconic villain, with high tastes and a classical education, but he’s as ruthless as he is erudite, and there’s never a sense that he’s anything other than evil, as can be argued of the book version. That’s central to wanting to see McClane defeat him.
More fundamentally, Leland isn’t a middle-class and middle-aged police officer but a retired cop who got into security consulting. (Successfully enough to fly first class; Leland is advised to wash his feet as a post-landing pick-me-up, rather than making fists with his toes.) He’s an elite fighter in every way; he helped write the rulebook and procedures for airline marshals, and he’s so knowledgeable about global terrorism that he identifies the head honcho by sight. The book’s version is Anton Gruber, a.k.a. Antonio Rojas, or “Little Tony The Red,” who straightens the neckties of his victims, and who “liked to present the gift of death in the form of a black boutonniere.” (Think Gary Oldman in Air Force One with a dash of Scarface’s theatricality.) Leland’s even an accomplished fighter pilot, having shot down more than 20 Nazi planes (the book was published in 1979). Meanwhile, literally the first glimpse we get of McClane is him anxiously gripping his armrest during landing.
In another McTiernan downshift, Forever opens with Leland in a taxi that gets into a fender bender; he pulls a gun on the other driver so he can make a flight. This establishes his tough-guy credentials, though it also makes him seem more reckless than he ends up being (he’s also a recovering alcoholic). Die Hard identifies McClane as an armed cop from the onset, but no part of his training is called into action until well into the film. And while Leland and McClane taunt Gruber over the radio, McClane’s smartass persona is a symptom of his being out of his depth, while the more confident Leland is more polished. The book’s narration is almost as volatile as McClane’s motor mouth, but again, this kind of relative complexity is almost unavoidable with a more internal artform like fiction. Book heroes always muse over their doubts and misgivings. Film ones almost never vocalize theirs.
McClane’s being a regular guy amounts to a fundamental reimagining of the character, but this isn’t a major change because Leland’s credentials don’t amount to much. The odds are stacked against both, and it’s not like he commandeers a jet or has the upper hand thanks to his knowledge of Gruber. Making him experienced doesn’t mean there’s less suspense, but it is less fun than an ordinary guy getting thrown into an extreme situation. The book is kind of the action equivalent to Murder On The Orient Express, where the world’s most qualified person just so happens to be at the scene of a crime as it goes down. Would Die Hard be as fun if John McClane was Jason Bourne? Doubtful. (Incidentally, Leland knowing of Gruber means there’s no scene where the terrorist pretends to be a hostage. That scene is at the heart of why Die Hard is so great: Both its main characters are smart and can improvise, rather than just having the next plot point fall into their laps.)
There’s an opposite tweak with the character of Sergeant Al Powell, our hero’s ally on the ground. He’s an LAPD veteran in the film, played by Reginald VelJohnson, whereas the book version is a rookie, apparently unmarried, and not a Twinkie-buying father-to-be. Both save the day by killing the final terrorist, but the book version adds another death to his tally by having him push the dickish Deputy Chief Dwayne Robinson in front of Leland, where he, as a human shield, stops a would-be assassin’s bullet. (Surely it would be just as easy to push someone out of the way, rather than someone else into the way?) Again, it’s not a foundational change, but Powell’s ending in the book is an ugly moral statement, whereas the unmuddled heroics of the film version is a rousing moment of catharsis. (Ignoring how “getting over having killed an unarmed child” is an inspirational arc.)
Another change: McClane is at the holiday party because he’s trying to reconnect with his estranged wife, Holly, whereas Leland’s there for his daughter. (In the book he’s been divorced for years; Holly’s also dead of cancer.) The marriage provides Die Hard’s emotional grounding, and is unusually nuanced for an action movie: The two love each other, but their relationship is strained as they struggle with divergent career goals and obligations. The closest thing the book has to a love interest is a flight attendant Leland picks up on his way to Los Angeles. While the two speak throughout his ordeal, their booty-call preparations, needless to say, lack the emotional resonance of the film.
There’s no redemptive arc between Leland and his daughter, where the relationship is distant but seems fundamentally solid. (Except for the lines where he’s so awful it’s almost unintentionally hilarious. At one point he reflects that “For years she had been five pounds too heavy, and now it looked like ten. With cocaine in her life, he had to be glad to see that she was still eating.”) But in another example of the book’s inherent nihilism, she doesn’t survive. Whereas Holly nearly tumbles out the window with Gruber, the younger Leland actually does, driving her dad nearly mad with grief. Here’s how he reacts when he immediately encounters another terrorist.
As he raised the pistol she realized that he had allowed her to live these extra seconds only to carry the gun to him. She started to scream. Leland could see that she had never lived, that she knew she was dying without ever having experienced most of the natural course of life. Leland thought of his dead daughter Steffie and shot this bitch in the forehead above the bridge of her nose.
The book is filled with such ugliness. After Stephanie’s death, Leland throws Klaxon’s money—the terrorists’ would-be score—out the window, making it rain all over Los Angeles. He rants against the company’s greed for having inspired the terrorists, against the world at large, even against his daughter: He “had to wonder what kind of a human being she had become” if she would work for such a corporation in the first place. And while McClane has no love for Deputy Police Chief Dwayne Robinson, here’s how he’s described in the book:
Civilization was full of Dwayne Robinsons, seeing everything that happened to them as opportunities for their own advancement and aggrandizement. They were the spoilers of society as much as all the Little Tonys who had ever lived, with Richard Nixon at the top of the list. Assholes. Because of them, civilization ceased to be even a sometime thing and sank into ambiguity. You didn’t know what to believe in anymore, or whether there was anything left.
Elsewhere there’s a flashback to a kind of cop convention, where one chief comes to the conclusion that the only thing that can deter the thugs in his jurisdiction is killing them. (“If these people come to my community, they’re going out on stretchers with the sheets off, so that everyone can see exactly what will happen the next time.”) Leland gives this a reluctant ovation, supporting it but knowing it means innocents will be hurt, emblematic of how he has a problem with basically everything. If the film is a Reagan-era ode to can-do American ingenuity, the book is mired in Carter-era malaise.
There is something compelling in the book’s ugliness, reminiscent of how Seven functions as both a thriller and a look at the state of the world’s morals. However, the material feels wrong for this story, unconnected to the general premise of an one-man army sneaking around and picking off bad guys one by one. What makes Die Hard the consensus choice for history’s best pure action movie is that it takes that great premise and removes everything that might complicate the audience’s enjoyment of it. All that is left is pure cinematic bliss. Yippee-ki-yay.
Start with: Nothing Lasts Forever is oddly compelling for the complexity it brings to the proceedings, though complexity of this sort probably isn’t what most people want from their Die Hard. It’s skippable for all but the curious, especially since there’s a lot of sexism and racism in the book that could charitably be called “dated.” Leland is bewildered by how many black guys work at the airport, and most of them have cringe-worthy dialogue. “Is the brother with you on this? Don’t juice my fruit!” one guy says, very naturally. (“Like so many blacks, the driver had the gift of language,” Thorp explains elsewhere.) It’s better than A Good Day To Die Hard, but then, what isn’t?