Monday, September 04, 2006

Die Hard Part 2: Structure

So why, out of all the stories I could pick to analyze, did I pick "Die Hard"?

Number one, I often want to do something like this with movies I watch, but some people get so wrapped around the axle on spoilers that I shy away. But "Die Hard" is almost 20 years old, so I'm not worried about spoiling anything for anybody. And number two, it and "Big Trouble in Little China" were both big influences on my work in how they combine action and humor. And since I spent several hours yesterday sitting at the keyboard trying to figure out how to approach a particular story point in the second draft, I could use some inspiration right about now.

Structurally, the movie is very similar to the book, only much leaner. The sequence of events, in general, is the same. However, the book, concerned as it is with the events of the terrorist siege causing Leland to examine the many ways he has fucked up his life, intersperses a lot of flashbacks into lulls in the action.

The movie, on the other hand, compresses everything and keeps pushing forward. Which is not to say that it's full of mindless action. The movie takes almost 30 minutes setting up McClane's character and his relationship with his wife before the villains are even introduced. But even much of the exposition is done in motion: McClane gives us the essential outline of his backstory during a limo ride, and the essential geography of the setting is set up as we travel through it with him.

Then throughout the film, things happen much faster than they do in the book. The most obvious example is the fire hose rappel. In the book, Leland fashions a harness from the straps of a kit bag he's wearing and uses it to attach himself to the hose, then carefully measures out the hose and calculates every aspect of the drop. In the movie, McClain is racing to get the hostages safe from an impending explosion while being shot at by FBI agents in a helicopter. The hose is a last-second impulsive choice, his only slim chance of survival. He ties it around his waist and jumps.

Of course, this approach has its drawbacks, at least in written fiction. The movie blazes past you so quickly you can't reflect on what you've just seen or heard, or else you'll miss what's coming next. So, for instance, you can let some howlers like Al Powell's backstory pass without complaint (the howler in question is the fact that in the movie, Powell is the first responding officer on the scene, then later tells McClane the story of how he accidentally killed a kid and was subsequently pulled off the streets; those two elements just don't fit together). A written story doesn't have that same luxury.

On the other hand, some of the structural techniques in the movie work better than the book. The book is told exclusively from Leland's point of view, while the movie intercuts between parallel lines of action: McClane and the terrorists, usually, but also the police in the street, the hostages, the TV reporter covering the story, the limo driver in the parking garage. In the action leading up to the fire hose rappel and the roof explosion, they're intercutting between four parallel activities: McClane fighting Karl to get to the roof, Gruber and Holly in the vault as they pack up the loot, hostages being taken to the roof, FBI agents on helicopters getting ready to blow away the bad guys and cold-bloodedly discussing how many hostages will die.

One of the neat structural tricks in the movie is to mirror action between the heroes and the villains. So, for instance, McClane or the cops will make a plan, while the villains are making their own plans, then we see teh results of both actions. We also see both sides succeeding and advancing simultaneously. So, for instance, after McClane has finally succeeded in getting the cops to take the threat seriously after a few failed and foiled attempts, we find that not only have the villains proceeded in their vault intrusion efforts, but that McClane's efforts have actually advanced their plans as well.

Next up: characters and dialogue

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