12.22.2014

From Novel to Film pt. 6: Nothing Lasts Forever / Die Hard

Novel (1979) written by Roderick Thorp. Film (1988) directed by John McTiernan and written by Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart.

THE NOVEL

"Policemen had a view of the world that few others understood. It was the way humanity had wanted things arranged. (...) People expected the Lelands of the world to dispatch the Little Tonys as simply as the butchers turned (cows, hogs, and chickens) into cutlets. But you'd better not demonstrate just how thin the veneer of civilization actually was. If you covered yourself in blood, you, too, had to be scourged."

"The difference between heroes and villains is only a matter of time, anyway."

The "Leland" of the above passage is Joe Leland, a WW2 veteran, retired cop, private detective, terrorism expert, security consultant, private aviator, divorced widow, and recovering drunk. He's visiting Los Angeles to spend Christmas with Stephanie, his estranged daughter, and his grandchildren. Stephanie works for Klaxon, an American oil company who has just signed a multi-million dollar deal with some oil-rich South American nation, and it is while he is visiting her at Klaxxon's Christmas party that terrorists attack and take everyone hostage. Except for Leland, who then must wage a one-man war against them from floor to floor, one terrorist at a time.

I'm going to wager that like myself most of the people reading this are more familiar with the movie than the book, so the first thing that jumps out here (besides his not being named "John McClane") is probably how much older the protagonist is. And that he is visiting his estranged daughter, not his estranged wife. 

Leland's daughter's married name becomes McClane's wife's maiden name in the film. Ye Freudians, take note.
The differences don't stop there: the terrorists are actually terrorists - wonderful 70s Baader-Meinhof/ SLA types - and not just long-haired Euro thieves masquerading as them. Gruber is called "Hans" in the film and "Anton" in the book (aka "Little Tony.") 

Gruber's radical past is hinted at in the film, but he is pointedly not a terrorist but a common exceptional thief.
Instead of an all-guy outfit, the terrorists have a few female members.

Also? Stephanie dies, and Leland may, as well. His fate is left uncertain as he is carted away on the last page with a gunshot in his belly.

Delivered by Karl, Gruber's right-hand man in both film and novel.
Karl is taken out the same way as in the film, by LAPD sargent Al Powell, who just like in the film, is Leland's sympathetic partner over the radio. (In the book, he's only 22 - no mention of Twinkies, either.) Unlike the film, though, Leland speaks with many more people over the radio, including a pirate radio operator named Taco Bill and a woman with whom he forms an improbable bond named Kathi Logan, the flight attendant who tried to pick Leland up on his flight to Los Angeles.

The ending of the novel is much more cynical than the film. The title refers not only to Leland's life/ family/ career, but an entire way of life for a certain type of American male altogether. Let's call that type the "cop" type, active from 1950 to about 1980. Maybe even America itself, entering the terrorist age. It's not altogether successful in this regard, for reasons I'll get into momentarily.

 
 
Nothing Lasts Forever is actually a sequel to Thorp's The Detective, a 1966 book that was made into a 1968 film with Frank Sinatra. (Neither of which I've seen or read.)

Which made me wonder two things: 1) Has there ever been another franchise-creating film that was based on a sequel to an altogether different work? and 2) Did a more straightforward adaptation of the book starring Frank Sinatra reprising his Joe Leland role ever almost materialize? (Answer: yes. It likely would have been terrible. Frank was seventy-three years old in 1988 and in rough shape: his ability to carry an action movie, even one heavily retooled to accommodate his septuagenarian sluggishness, seems unlikely.) 

With regard to Leland's pedigree (ex-detective, security consultant, etc.) Michael Scott (Steve Carrell) gives a speech in "Money," the 4th episode of the 4th season of The Office (US) that I thought of a few times while reading:

"Here's the thing about Die Hard 4. In Die Hard 1, the original, John McClane was just this normal guy. You know, he's just a normal New York City cop, who gets his feet cut, and gets beat up. But he's an everyday guy. In Die Hard 4, he is jumping a motorcycle into a helicopter. In air. You know? He's invincible. It just sort of lost what Die Hard was. It's not Terminator."


Michael Scott is right. Not just about the Die Hard franchise, but about Nothing Lasts Forever. At one point, Leland even tells Gruber over the walkie-talkie that he is the one person he (Gruber) should have wished wasn't in the building when the terrorists came. Far from being "an everyday guy," Leland is the author and architect of just about every anti-terrorism strategy and protocol the United States had in place by the late 70s. 


"He had participated in the secret seminars and conferences that had developed the contingency plans of many of the nation's municipal police departments. This was the real, only and true reason for the creation of SWAT team. The Symbionese Liberation Army shootout was a case in point. Ex-LAPD Chief Ed Davis had tipped the strategy completely with his so-called jocular response to the problem of air piracy: "Hang 'em at the airport." The strategy: kill them all. (...) There now existed a world-wide network of people in their twenties and thirties, some acting independently but most in combination with other groups, orchestrated from and protected in sanctuaries like Syria, Lebanon, South Yemen, and Libya, who had committed their lives to the destruction of social order in the non-communist world."

All of which is just saying: both the protagonist and the context of the book are much different than the film. This wasn't tough to negotiate, though, as dialogue like this -

"'Hey, creep! Do you speak English?'
'Yes I do, you human filth!'
'Take a good look at those emergency lights by the elevator!'
He laughed. 'I saw that movie, Sergent York! Gary Cooper made a bird call!'
'Look again, dummy!'"

Or this:

"Four of them, one of whom he recognized, goddamn it - goddamn it - all armed with the world's best one-man weapon, the Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle. Leland shook with rage and self-reproach. He should have done better than this!"

I suppose that's just a style choice and not a failing of the author or anything. Fair enough. So I leave it up to you. If a paragraph like this -
 
"Karen would have loved it, he knew. Everything from arriving at the airport in St. Louis to this moment. Pulling a gun in a traffic accident. Kissing Kathi Logan. Letting this happen. And then making one bad decision after another, until he could not make a move, or say a word. Hubris. The All-American Hero. The sin of pride. He'd seen an example of it in an interview with a pretty-boy ballplayer: My wife was just another co-ed, but then more and more she became a complement to me. Leland shuddered. He had hurt many people in his life, but he had hurt Karen more than anyone."

doesn't make you want to scream, my guess is the novel's writing style won't present a problem for you. For me, reading Nothing Lasts Forever made me appreciate how much more to my liking novels in the same conceptual terrain like The Green Ripper by John D. MacDonald or The Running Man by Richard Bachman are.

THE FILM

Like many guys my age, I saw Die Hard two or three times in the cinema and then something like 50 times once it came out on VHS. Add in another 50 viewings at the very least in its laser disc, DVD, and cable incarnations and lord knows how many times I've seen the movie. But I haven't sat down to watch it start-to-finish in many years, possibly as many as 20. 

It can be tricky reviewing a movie as well-known and pored over as Die Hard. Alexandra DuPont at DVD-Journal does a commendable job in highlighting the whys and wherefores of its memorability and impact. 

"Aside from the fact that it is terrifically entertaining action/suspense filmmaking — (it) had more influence on '90s Hollywood filmmaking than any other '80s film. (...) Typical elements of the direct (and indirect) sub-genre descendents largely credited to Die Hard:

1. Multiple characters, broadly and quickly sketched.

De'voreaux White as Argyle.
Alexander Godunov as Karl.
James Shigeta as Joe Takagi
(Remember him from "Nightmare," the Outer Limits episode?)
Clarence Gilyard, Jr. as Theo.
 Hart Bochner as Ellis and Bonnie Bedelia as Holly.
And of course Reginald VelJohnson as Al.

2. A particular mix of bloody mayhem and wisecrack humor. 

"Welcome to the party, pal!"
"Now I have a machine gun... Ho Ho Ho."

  3. A well-spoken, colorful, and/or Eurotrash villain, preferably played by a critically acclaimed actor.  

Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber
Even if his American accent (as the director admits in the commentary) is not especially convincing, making McClane's "You should get an Oscar for that accent" remark somewhat puzzling. But hey, movie magic.
4. A blue-collar, vulnerable protagonist who gets the absolute hell beat out of him. 


5. A tightly controlled locale. 

   
It's tough to distinguish in this 'cap, but I love this bit, where Al looks down the street and up at Nakatomi Plaza and sees mysterious flashes of light, not knowing he's seeing the gun battle between McClane and Karl et al.

6. Policemen and other officials cast as bumbling bureaucrats/hapless objects of ridicule.

The media, too, of course.
Much of McClane's verbal back and forth with Deputy Chief Dwayne Robinson is verbatim from the book.
"Send in the car. Send in THE CAR." (My buddy Al and I used to say that one a lot when quoting this movie. The SWAT guy just says it so bizarrely.)
It's true there are earlier films of the 80s that combine these elements (not the least of which is its director's immediately previous effort, Predator) but Die Hard is perhaps the slickest entry of them all. It certainly felt like a crystallization of action movie efforts preceding it. At least until its sequel, Die Harder, but we'll get to that one (and 58 Minutes, the book it's based on, kinda sorta) in due turn.

As mentioned above, the novel's title works on a few levels. The film's does, too, but in different ways. Most obvious, I suppose, is the battery-powered allusion, but I remember the original trailer for this had the movie-guy announcer saying something like "They told him to quit, but old habits... die hard." This was dropped from subsequent trailers, though, and "die hard" became more of an existential machismo state of being.

Speaking of machismo, much has been made of the film's "anti-feminism." From DVD-Journal once again: "a patriarchal blue-collar fantasy — a less-educated white guy saves corporate doofuses and his overly assertive wife by conquering effeminate, high-class thugs in a phallus-shaped exploding tower." But as the same review points out, "while the class conflict is certainly there (and, let's face it, a big part of the movie's appeal), the story's too nuanced to serve as mere anti-feminist propaganda. For one thing, over the course of the movie McClane loses his absolutist stance on his marriage — specifically, he gets it beaten out of him. For another, McClane's wife is the only corporate executive to successfully tangle with terrorist leader."

I'd also like to add that surface appearances aside, the last-name thing is actually effective script-building, from the "if you introduce a gun in the first act it better go off in the third" perspective. It serves a purpose, both for the plot and for John and Holly's character arcs.

Watching it in 2014, a few other things popped out at me:

- Willis really oversells (in a fun and not inappropriate way) some of the drama, particularly in the scene where he tries to get the fire department to come to Nakatomi. ("I'LL KISS YOUR FUCKING DALMATION! NO, DON'T TURN AROUND! NO, YOU STUPID MOTHERFUCKERS, NO! (smacks window) NO! (smack!) NO! (smack!)

But I doubt anyone would consider this too over-the-top for an 80s flick.
(ding)
- Al's whole deal is he has to get over an earlier incident in his career where he fatally shot a kid who was waving a ray gun at him. 

Thankfully for him - and for audiences at the time - there was no culture of instant reactionary punditry to call for his beheading.
And as with the married-last name issue, it serves a point to the script; Al must draw his weapon and shoot Karl dead in a split-second decision. As with Holly, John McClane's sweaty, bloody, barefoot heroism has helped him overcome his own block. 


- I've always referred to Die Hard as one of my favorite Christmas movies. And while it has little in the way of explicit yuletide themes, the scene where the thieves finally break into the vault, as accompanied by the choral stretch of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, always has an "opening the greatest gift ever" feel to it for me.


And the McClanes are ferried away by their own waiting sleigh at film's end. No need to answer any questions, Mr. McClane - off you go!

Mer-rr-ry Christmas!

Final Verdict: Not a bad action book but not my cup of tea. Much better as a movie. And as an 80s action movie, should be time-capsuled for alien civilizations.


14 comments:

  1. The Sinatra bit is amazing. And Phil Hartman-era SNL should totally have done a Sinatra-as-John McClane sketch. "Hey coo coo, baby. I have a machine gun."

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    1. Oh man - I so want to see that now!!

      Especially if we can have Dean Martin play Al. "You're the king, Frank! Go get 'em, Daddy-O."

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  2. I read a movie-tie-in edition of the novel circa 1988, and I remember liking it. I had no idea it was a sequel to another book, though. Unsurprisingly, my edition didn't exactly trumpet that fact.

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    1. Weird, eh? And its sequel (Die Harder) is based on a whole different book by a whole different author/ different characters, etc. Not that it hampers any of the fun, but it's a unique way to have gone about things, for sure.

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    2. It's not an unreasonable way to go about filmmaking, though. Most big-budget movies are Frankenstein's-monsters anyways, in terms of the degree to which they are cobbled together. So really, it's probably a bit surprising this sort of thing doesn't happen more often.

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    3. True. Yet I can think of no other franchise-starter that is based on a sequel to another piece of work, with its own sequel based on a wholly different one.

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  3. It's interesting to contrast the book and film in terms of their themes a bit more. The book, as you say, seems to be a howl of rage at the ending of an old way of life. Whether said life is. was real or only a matter of perception is a question that I don't think has ever been answered. For instance, compare Nothing Lasts with the film Falling Down, which while not similar sometimes overlap in terms of characters who are seeing their way of life evaporate a bit at a time.

    As for the film, I'm still wondering how this plays in a post-911 culture. The irony is, I didn't see the film until after those events, and so I was bringing a whole other frame of reference to the flick as it unfolded. This was a question that was sharpened on a viewing of Die Hard 3. I know what Carrel is getting at in one sense, but then there's the set up of New York under threat, and in parituclar a scene in which a fictional police commissioner is debriefing a possibly real life squad of Port Authority cops. When I first saw that seen I think my eyes bugged out, because nothing really prepared me for it. Up to that point Carrel could have been said to carry the day, and then the police are mobilized and historical knowledge kicks in and...Yeah, I still just wonder if anyone has ever thought to relate those films to the culture we're living in now.

    ChrisC

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    1. As for Die Hard being a Christmas movie. The way I see it, perhaps without meaning to, the film actually does tackle a lot of the holiday themes in maybe an unorthodox, yet ultimately beneficial way, similar to such films as Gremlins or Bad Santa.

      Basically, what you have the story of an estranged family who find themselves growing closer and coming together over the holiday. It's the basic Hallmark set-up, except with guns. While no one mentions the holiday, it's paraphernalia is prevalent as a looming background presence. In that way, it's perhaps a subconscious influence on the proceedings, as a lot of the issues the characters deal with chime with a lot of the themes of Christmas. McLane is the busy workaholic who needs to appreciate his family, Gruber is the greedy Grinch-like character, and Powel is a man who's always been looking for a second chance and finds it on the holiday.

      What you get is a pattern of seasonal tropes played out in a very clever fashion. Also, I should point out that the holiday itself might be said to help resolve the story in the form of some very convenient present wrapping tape.

      Okay, one more just for laughs. This is a theory I actually read on another website. Wouldn't it be funny of McLane was actually a grown-up Kevin from Home Alone?

      ..I'l go take my meds now. Happy Holidays!

      ChrisC

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    2. ha! I like that Home Alone angle.

      I thought of the 911 aspect while watching this, particularly in one scene where the slimy reporter mentions how Los Angeles has joined (paraphrasing) that unfortunate brotherhood of series who have been besieged by terrorists. Obviously, that line comes across a little differently in post-911 America. You made some good points, here, in this regard.

      The universe of the Die Hard films (much like the universe of 24) is a really unsafe place, isn't it? You'd think no one would live in these cities, getting nuked or taken over as often as they are!

      I'll buy that reading of DH as exploring traditional-but-hidden Christmas tropes. Thank you!

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  4. I love this movie.. and for some reason didn't realize it had a book it was based off. Though I should've known that. The future Die Hard movies were goofy. I mean.. what the hell?? Especially the last one. I like your point about the fact that all of a sudden everyone are bad asses and are no longer just normal people like you and I.

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    1. And that's especially disappointing considering that the first movie was -- intentionally or not -- a major step away from the superhero-esque antics of Schwarzenegger and Stallone.

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    2. I agree all around. I didn't see the last 2 Die Hard movies, pretty much because the previews warned me off.

      I did get a chuckle - and still do - at the poster for the last one, though: Yippi Ky Yay, Mother Russia.

      It's not enough to excuse the movie or the direction of the last few, but it cracks me up.

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    3. I actually do wonder if whether or not all the other Die hard films, starting with 2, are perhaps better off considered as part of a reboot, and the first should maybe be considered stand alone.

      I don't know if that makes any sense, however it does allow the original to have a sense of dignity that other never do come quite that close to, while still allowing the sequels to exist as their own things.

      Just a thought.

      ChrisC

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