Adapted from: Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp
Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Paul Gleason, William Atherton
Written by: Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza
Directed by: John McTiernan
For the three of you who may not know, Die Hard follows the plight of New York cop, John McClane (Willis), who has flown into Los Angeles to attempt a reconciliation with his estranged wife, Holly (Bedelia). All does not go to plan. They meet at her Christmas party in the Nakatomi building, where Holly works. It is swiftly taken over by terrorist Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his gang, who holds everyone as hostages. All, that is, except McClane who manages to slip away and starts to use his NYPD wiles to attempt to take the building back and rescue his wife.
One of those films that seemed to go through various versions before it finally hit the screen, including a rumoured plan for it to be a vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Commando sequel, Die Hard would take a while to find its leading man. It was offered to a fair few action stars, including Sylvester Stallone, before it would land a lead in the form of TV actor, Bruce Willis. Thorp's novel, Nothing Lasts Forever, is actually a sequel to Thorp's earlier book, The Detective, which was adapted into a film starring Frank Sinatra, meaning that when it came to making Die Hard, the producers were contractually obliged to offer Sinatra the main role. Just take a moment to imagine that.
Moving on from that indelible image, Thorp's book is the same basic plot as the film would go on to be. Instead of an active NYC cop, the main character is Joe Leland (always grateful for different names when I have to distinguish between book and film characters), a security consultant, a veteran of the Second World War, and a former police officer. He is a widower; he and his wife, Karen, had a strenuous marriage that ended after much misery before she passed away, but he has an adult daughter, Stephanie, who works for Klaxon Oil. It is in Klaxon's building that the action takes place.
As the note in Nothing Lasts Forever states, Die Hard is inspired by Thorp's novel, rather than directly adapting it. It's a case in which screenwriters approach their source material with exactly the right degree of ruthlessness. Gone are the extra bits where Leland hides and thinks about geopolitics for what feels like hours at a time, gone are the lengthy moments of backstory. Stuart and de Souza tighten everything up and recognise that the most important elements of the story, the hero and the setting, are the only ones really needed to make Die Hard work. Oh and one more thing, keeping Harry Ellis a scumbag. That helps too.
Stuart and de Souza wisely retain Thorp's cracking central concept of a man as a sole warrior against the group of bad guys, all of whom are trapped in a multi-storey building with a lot of frightened hostages. What Stuart and de Souza do with their take on the story is to compress the time period, something which adds a greater sense of urgency to the film. In Thorp's narrative, the action takes place over three days, starting with Leland's arrival on Christmas Eve. The longer time period affects the pace somewhat, particularly when digressions are made to explore his history and relationships. In Die Hard, it feels like barely a second is wasted.
Both novel and adaptation also carry with them a key theme: greed. In the novel, the Klaxon corporation has just sealed a deal in South America that would put lives at risk, but they've made a boatload of cash in doing so. It is this that sets chief terrorist, Anton Gruber aka Little Tony, up for his big plan; he wishes to punish the corporation and make a big statement about the dangers of greed for the little people. In the film, the greed comes from the terrorists themselves and Hans states he wishes to teach the Nakatomi corporation a lesson for their greed (their glistening citadel is a beacon of 80s capitalism).
The terrorism aspect is merely a front to get them through the door and distract the authorities whilst they go for the vault full of bearer bonds. Director McTiernan decided that terrorists as the villains could be a bit too nasty for what would be a summer film and thus stripping the story of much of its politics. Hans Gruber is just flat out bad. Hans is placed very differently in the narrative to his literary counterpart where the reader's knowledge of Little Tony is focalised through Leland's knowledge of him and his interactions.
In the film, we see much more of Hans Gruber in his own right. Partly, this is due to how the screenwriters approached the material, as if Hans was, in fact, the protagonist because he drives the entire narrative. As a result, the film becomes an intensely masculine chess game between the tailored-suited sophisticate and the vest-wearing man of the people. Giving both Willis and Rickman what feels like equal prominence further heightens that battle and focuses the story in a stronger way than Thorp manages to, even in the final confrontation between Leland and Little Tony.
It helps that the two men are played with such aplomb by both Rickman and Willis. It would be a star-making turn for the former, becoming one of the best and most beloved actors of the last 30 years. His groomed psychopath is the charismatic yet villainous centre of the film and with less opposition, he may have stolen the film more than he already did. But it would also be a star-making turn for Willis as McClane. He's grouchy, snarky, and out of his comfort zone. Becoming the hero of the piece is his way of taking some kind of control in the face of overwhelming adversity.
In these days of 50/60 year old action stars still tearing up the screen, had we had an adaptation of Nothing Lasts Forever now, it's highly likely that we'd have seen Leland's age accurately translated. Instead, we're in the macho 80s phase, so it has to be a young buck who is both capable of legging it up and down stairwells and surviving the truncated time span in a cat-and-mouse game with terrorists. But aside from his age and which family member is trapped in the building with him, a lot of what makes Leland work so well is that he's portrayed as vulnerable. He's getting older with a life of violence wearing him down. He's barefoot, low on ammo most of the time, and facing what seem like insurmountable odds. The physical toll of attempting to survive for three days in the a tower block with a bunch of terrorists is related at every stage by Thorp. It seems, at times, like sheer exhaustion might get him before Little Tony does.
Although McClane has the benefit of comparative youth, the film translates Leland's vulnerable side too, not just in having our action hero perform his acts of derring do in bare feet. McClane is shown early on to be emotionally compromised by meeting his estranged wife for the first time in a while. His first meeting with Holly goes south fast and his constant quips are more to cover his own feelings of inadequacy rather than a sign of strength. It makes him a relatable kind of everyman in an extraordinary situation, something which the sequels have increasingly lost. It's a big part of Die Hard's success and when McClane goes up against Hans, their differences make it such a compelling confrontation.
An action classic for the ages, Die Hard recognises the strengths of its source material and magnifies them in order to make a fantastic example of the genre. Compressing the narrative and casting a younger hero makes for a more urgent affair and the final masterstroke arrives in the form of Alan Rickman in a perfectly tailored suit. What could be better?