Friday, September 01, 2006

Finding What Works: Die Hard

So I thought I would take a break from obsessing about my own progress (or lack of) and talk about something I really like, while trying to find the elements that make it work so well. So I thought I'd take a good close look at "Die Hard."

The movie came out in 1988, just after I'd left The Daily Oklahoman. It starred Bruce Willis, who was mainly well known for his role asDavid Addison in Moonlighting, a combination screwball comedy/romance/mystery TV series that was a huge hit, if only briefly. Before the movie came out, I had my doubts about Willis being able to pull off an action role, but he did it brilliantly.

But before I start tearing apart the movie, which is an almost perfect piece of action-adventure entertainment, let's look at the book that inspired it.

In 1979, a guy named Roderick Thorp released a little suspense novel titled Nothing Lasts Forever. The book was actually a sequel to his 1966 novel, The Detective, which had been made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra.

Comparing the novel and the movie is an interesting exercise. There is one school of thought that says you should be as true to the book as possible when making the movie. Another school of thought says that you can take liberties with the text, changing and combining characters and events, as long as you are true to the spirit of the book. The general line of thinking goes that if you discard both, you're sure to have an awful movie.

"Die Hard" disproves that. It's true to neither the plot nor the spirit of the book, and it's a rip-roaring good time. Yet, for everything from the book that it discards or changes, you can still see the skeleton of the novel in the movie, unlike say, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," which discards virtually everything from Gary Wolfe's novel except for a few names and the central conceit, that toons are real and photographed, not drawn.

So what did the movie discard from the novel, besides the title? The main characters' names, for one. Joe Leland is replaced by John McClane. Stephanie Gennaro, Leland's divorced daughter, is replaced by Holly Gennaro, McClane's estranged wife. The terrorist leader, Little Tony the Red, becomes the suave Hans Gruber.

Yet the basic structure is much the same. Leland flies to Los Angeles to be with his family on Christmas Eve. Joins his daughter at a Christmas party in the high-rise building where she works. Terrorists attack while Leland is off cleaning up, relaxing with his shoes off. As the terrorists defend the building from police and try to break into the safe on the top floor, Leland picks them off one by one. He breaks the neck of one in a fistfight. He escapes down a ventilation shaft, using his rifle strap as a rope. He takes a bag of plastic explosive and detonators off a dead terrorist, and later drops that explosive down an elevator shaft as a makeshift bomb. He cuts his bare feet on broken glass. He listens over the radio as Ellis, his daughter's coworker, is killed by the terrorists right after giving them Leland's identity. He argues with the cops outside, ends up trapped on the roof, and has to rappel down the side of the building with a firehose. He finally shoots Little Tony, who grabs Stephanie's watchband as he falls out the window, dragging her with him. In the end, as McClane is about to be killed by Karl, the vengeful brother of the man whose neck Leland broke, the final terrorist is shot by Al Powell of the LAPD.

Anyone familiar with the movie will recognize these familiar touchstones, and yet the flavor of the book is completely different. Leland is a bitter old man, a retired cop and widower who has grown estranged from his daughter. Stephanie is a self-absorbed, cocaine-snorting yuppie, and while Leland loves her, he doesn't much like her. Little Tony is a committed communist who commits the assault in order to steal money the corporation has gotten by illicit means. After Leland kills Tony, and accidentally causes his own daughter's death in the process, he proceeds to the opened safe and throws of millions of dollars in cash out the open windows into the streets, in order to punish the corporation, a big oil company whose misdeeds prompted this whole mess.

While the book is suspenseful, the characters are all sort of sour and used up and pathetic, and it's hard to really root for any of them. From the pessimistic, contemplative title to the final line, there's something in the book that's like, to quote Stephen King, "biting on tinfoil." A stinging undertaste that never mellows.

Next time: how to turn this bitter downward spiral into a sweet roller-coaster ride.

No comments: