Die Hard: From Book to Screen

When Die Hard first exploded onto screens in 1988 no one could have foreseen the impact that film would have on the action genre, and certainly never guess that it would create its own subgenre “Die Hard on a insert other location here but the biggest game changer was having an “everyman” as the protagonist instead of the musclebound superheroes that had been populating the screens during the 80s. And we almost didn’t get it.

film-page-feature-image-front-main-stage-1

When director John McTiernan was hired it was originally to make a sequel to the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Commando, but when Arnie turned it down (as well Sylvester Stallone, Burt Reynolds, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson and Richard Gere) Bruce Willis entered the picture. So instead of the indestructible Schwarzenegger hero mold we got a man who could be hurt, and who only survives against incredible odds due to sheer his tenacity and force of will. What many people don’t know is that that wasn’t some out of the box thinking by the filmmakers; it was all in the bloody book.

book cover nothing lasts forever

Nothing Lasts Forever was a thriller penned by Roderick Thorpe back in 1979 and was a sequel to his 1966 novel The Detective. The character in these books was an aging retired cop named Joe Leland who was a fighter pilot in WWII and later became security consultant who has aided in creating many of security protocols instituted by the FAA. So definitely not Bruce Willis and certainly not Arnold Schwarzenegger, but what is fascinating is that Frank Sinatra played Joe Leland in the film adaptation of The Detective (1968) and Sinatra had first refusal on any sequels.

Frank-Sinatra-1024x576So we could have had a 73 year old guy crawling through air ducts if he’d said yes.

The movie version has rugged New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) visiting Los Angeles to spend Christmas with his estranged wife Holly Gennaro McClane (Bonnie Bedelia) and his kids, while in the book he is visiting his daughter Stephanie Gennaro and her kids who are all at the big Christmas party at the Klaxon Oil building where she is vice-president for international sales. That’s a pretty radical departure from the source material right off the top but it gets even weirder, in the book it’s pretty implicit that she is sleeping with her boss Ellis and that they both use cocaine, she is up to her neck in illegal dealings, and in the end Stephanie pays the ultimate price. In the movie Ellis (Hart Bochner) is portrayed much as he is the book, kind of slimy corporate jerk, but there is certainly nothing going on between Holly and him. He goes out in the book the exact same way he does in the movie, by being a total schmuck.

ellisHans, *booby* I’m your white knight.”

One of the major differences between the book and the movie is the format; in the book the reader only sees the events through the eyes of Joe Leland, it never cuts away to what the villains, hostages, or cops are doing. We only get glimpses of what other people are doing through what Leland overhears on the radio or while eavesdropping on the bad guys. Speaking of the bad guys Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) is simply one of the best cinematic villains in motion picture history; he’s cool, suave, smart and incredibly ruthless, and really it’s Rickman that gives the edge to the character in the movie versus the version in the book.

hans gruberAlan Rickman is Hans Gruber.

The villain of the book is Anton “Little Tony the Red” Gruber who is the son of an SS officer, and who left his life of privilege to become a politically motivated terrorist. Tony Gruber is a charismatic sociopath that gets off on killing but he is also quite sharp. He figures out that Leland had been overhearing their conversation while he was hiding atop the elevator car, and uses that to lay a trap for him.  He has his men smash the fluorescent lights inside the buildings stairwell, littering the dark stairs with feet slicing shards of glass, because he saw Leland’s clothes and shoes left behind in the office. This was no “Shoot the glass” epiphany in the middle of a firefight; it was a cold calculated booby trap.

JohnMcClane-Bloody-DieHard-1Note: Glass walls and such in offices would be made of safety glass and would not do much damage to your bare feet, while the glass from fluorescent tubes would leave your feet a bloody mess.

The make up of the villains is also rather different from book to movie.  In the book there are four women terrorists on the team that takes over the building, and when Leland kills the first of them he throws up from the sheer horror of what he has done.  He quickly gets over this as the story progresses and he has to take them all down, sometimes in a rather cold and villainous manner.  I’m betting McTiernan thought having Bruce Willis killing a bunch of young women would damage his likability somewhat.

movie-crews-die-hardSo in the movie we have a villainous all boys club.

In both the book and the movie walkie-talkies are key in moving the plot along, but in the book they don’t have enough range for Leland to call the police. In the movie John McClane has no problem contacting a police operator, only in getting them to take him seriously, while Joe Leland on the other hand uses the buildings lights to flash a Morse code message.  Points for ingenuity there.  Also Leland’s work as a security consultant has brought him into the world of terrorism, he actually knows Anton Gruber on sight and knows how he and his associates operate.  This certainly gives him an edge over a New York police detective.

walkie-talkiesYippee ki-yay, motherfucker!

Gruber in both book and movie coldly murders the head of the company. In the movie it’s a Japanese company and the corporate head is Mr. Takagi (James Shigeta) while in the book Klaxon is an oil company run by a Texan named Rivers.  Joseph Takagi is sympathetic character, and his sudden death is a shock to the system, while Rivers is your stereotypical Texan blowhard whose death will result in no tears from anyone.

hans-gruber-die-hard “I could talk about industrialization and men’s fashion all day, but work must intrude.

Both book and movie have the hero killing the first terrorist and sending him down in an elevator with a message written on him; but in the movie it’s “Now I have a machine gun Ho-Ho-Ho” while in the book it’s “We now have a machine” in attempt to mislead the terrorists into believing they are dealing with more than one opponent.

DieHard_MachineGunHoHoHoSomeone needs to tell Karl his brother is dead.

die-hard-1988--33Both McClane and Leland have to make their way around the building via improbably sized air ducts.

When one reads the book you may find yourself wondering, “Where is Richard Thornburg?” because the reporter played by William Atherton does not exist at all in the book. The news media actually plays little part in the novel aside from the rare times Leland can take a break to find a television set to see what’s going on outside.  On the other hand one major character in the book that is completely missing from the movie is flight attendant Kathi Logan who Leland met on his flight to L.A. and who he flirted with her on the plane, and they planned to hook up some time during the holidays. Several times Leland is able to talk with her via radio and she provides the emotional connection in the book opposed to the wife in the movie.

william athertonThere was no chance of Willis and Atherton hooking up.

Both Leland and McClane drop explosives down an elevator shaft to take out some of the terrorists and in both cases the explosion was more than he expected. The reason for the bad guys to have so much plastic explosives, and their mad desire to get the detonators back, makes much more sense in the movie than in the book.  In the movie it is an integral part of their plan in covering-up their crime, but in the book its kind of just part of your standard terrorist’s arsenal.  Also the movie brings in humor to lighten up the tension by having McClane asks if the building is on fire and being told…

4-620x259“No, but it’s gonna need a paint job and a shit load of screen doors.”

jumpDo Not Try This At Home.

Both book and movie have the hero tying himself off with a fire hose and leaping from the roof of the building, but in the book there are no FBI guys in the helicopter that blows up as there is no FBI involvement at all in the novel, just the local police.  So the movie wins points there as the overconfident interactions with Agents Johnson and Johnson are brilliant and quite funny.  Basically the book doesn’t have a lot of humor in it.

Die-Hard-38Just like fucking Saigon! Eh slick?

At the end, after all the terrorists are assumed dead, the psychotic Karl (Alexander Godunov) pops up to try and kill the hero. In the movie police officer Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) shoots Karl thus saving McClane’s life. In the book Karl and Leland never have the face-off fight that Godunov and Willis had in the movie, as for the most part he is believed dead when Leland dropped the bomb down the elevator shaft.  So Karl’s sudden appearance at the end of movie has greater emotional weight opposed to the book’s “one more villain left” moment.  The movie also has Godunov fantastic performance as the psychotic Karl, his dancer’s physique translating well into that of a professional killer, who’s palpable rage at the death of his brother is down right scary, while the Karl in the book is hardly mentioned at all.

karl alexander godunov“I don’t want neutral,  I want dead!”

In the book Al Powell does shoot Karl but only after first pulling Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason) in front of Leland for cover, which results in Robinson’s death. In both the book and the movie Robinson is a bit of dick, but in the book once he realizes who Leland is he begins to side with him. So his death in the book is rather odd as it really doesn’t feel merited.  John McTiernan clearly thought so as Robinson survives the movie, even though he was a much bigger dick in the script than he was in the book.

die-hard-paul-gleasonJesus Christ, Powell, he could be a fucking bartender for all we know.”

Probably the biggest difference between the book and the movie is the motivation of the villains; when Hans Gruber asks for the code to the safe Mr. Tagaki asks “You want money? What kind of terrorist are you?” Gruber responds “Who said we were terrorists?” It’s later revealed that that terrorist angle was all a smokescreen that would allow them to slip away after they were assumed dead along with the hostages when the building is exploded.

gruberWhen they touch down, we’ll blow the roof, they’ll spend a month sifting through rubble, and by the time they figure out what went wrong, we’ll be sitting on a beach, earning twenty percent.”

In the book they are in fact terrorists. Gruber plans on exposing Klaxon’s illegal activities with the Junta regime in Chile by breaking into their corporate safe and getting a hold of the incriminating documents.  He would then dump them, and the nine million dollars of ill-gotten gains, out the window to the waiting public below. Even more shocking is that Stephanie Gennaro was major player in this illegal arms deal, and the expensive watch she bought herself as a reward ends up killing her.

hans-hollyDamsel in distress.

In the movie Hans Gruber grabs for Holly as he goes out the window, McClane is able to undo the clasp of the watch letting Hans fall to his death alone, but in the book she has no such luck and she goes to her death with the terrorist. That’s a pretty dark ending but very in-keeping with that genre in the 70s.  It’s not even made clear if Joe Leland survives as the last line of the book as he is being wheeled away on a gurney is; “Leland closed his eyes. Now, and for a little while longer, he was going to think of flying.” Leland takes a much more severe beating in the book opposed to the movie, and being that he is a much older man this ambiguous ending could mean that he doesn’t make it. That there was no third book with Joe Leland makes that even more plausible.  The ending of the movie is for me what really edges it ahead of the book, the brilliant plan by Hans Gruber to rob the company while faking their deaths is much better than the generic terrorists kill people to expose corrupt arms dealing.

hans-gruber-fall-1080Good bye Hans.

There have been so many movies based on books where the filmmakers didn’t seem to even care about the source material, thus losing what made it good in the first place, but in the case of Die Hard even with all the radical differences it all works amazingly well. Though elements differ greatly in many ways both the book and the movie provide us with solid characters that draw the reader/viewer in, all resulting in some excellent entertainment for book or screen.  If someday Hollywood decided to make a movie closer to the book that would be awesome, but nothing will change the fact that Die Hard is still one of the all-time greatest action films…that unfortunately spawned a not so great collection of sequels. If you are a fan of Die hard, and who isn’t, I highly recommend you track down Nothing Lasts Forever as it makes a great companion piece to the movie.

Mike Brooks

Mike Brooks

Film grad who spends most his time trying to catch up on his "To Watch" pile of movies.

  • rosie1843

    If someday Hollywood decided to make a movie closer to the book that would be awesome, but nothing will change the fact that Die Hard is still one of the all-time greatest action films…that unfortunately spawned a not so great collection of sequels.

    Actually, the sequels are actually pretty good, especially the 2007 movie.

    • michael kelley

      Die Hard 2 was one of the most convoluted movies in modern history, Die Hard With a Vengence, however, was a good movie. Going back to the Gruber roots that made the original so good. Without Alan Rickman’s Gruber, Die Hard isn’t half as good.

      • Michael Brooks

        Having John McClane running around an airport, where he would realistically have help from multiple branches of law enforcement, is what made that film one of the weaker ones. John is better when he’s one man against all for a reason, and not because of plot convenience.

        • michael kelley

          Not to mention the most contrived plot device in movie history: if it’s simply not one of the worst storms in the history of DC the night they’re moving Esperanza, the whole terrorist scheme falls to sh*t. Never have terrorists had so much riding on the weather.

          • Michael Brooks

            I recommend reading the book the script was based on “58 Minutes” where an NYPD captain has 58 minutes to stop the villains before his daughter’s plane crashes, and in this book he gets help from pretty much everyone, even the bloody Coast Guard. The book is so much better than the movie.

          • michael kelley

            Did not know that. I will certainly look into it. Thanks for the heads up.