After resuscitating this infrequent and haphazardly recurring blog feature last month, here I am in an ongoing attempt to make it more of a “regular thing.” The basic idea is pretty simple: I present a nostalgic look at a favorite series of movie or TV tie-in books, often from days gone by but I’m not opposed to checking out more recent offerings. So far, previous installments of this wannabe regular column-like thing have included looks back at novels based on The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, Planet of the Apes, V, and Space: 1999.
This time, I’m deviating from the established formula a bit and veering away from novels and such which tend to be novelizations of films or television episodes or instead original stories featuring a film or TV series’ established characters. For this latest installment, I’m adding in a dash of flavor as we take a look at novels or other source material that served as inspiration for the popular Die Hard film series, and we can’t do that unless we go all the way back to the very beginning with a book that really has nothing at all to do with any of the Bruce Willis films….
The genesis of the glorious 1988 action classic that is Die Hard traces back to The Detective, a novel written by author Roderick Thorp and first published in 1966. It’s here that readers are introduced to Joe Leland, a private detective and World War II veteran who investigates the death of friend who also served during the war on behalf of his widow. Naturally things don’t go according to any sort of plan and Leland finds himself in big trouble as he peels back layer after layer and discovers the truth behind the secret life of a man which got him killed. The Detective was adapted in 1968 into a feature film starring Frank Sinatra in the title role. The movie was a commercial success and one of Sinatra’s most successful box office outings.
Thorp penned a sequel, 1979’s Nothing Lasts Forever. In this new tale, Joe Leland is now retired from detective work and flies from New York City to Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to spend the holiday with his daughter, Stephanie Gennero, who works for a big oil company in a high-rise office building. The company’s having a Christmas party and the festivities are interrupted by terrorists…..
Wait. Some of this sounds familiar, right?
When the decision was made to buy the rights to Nothing Lasts Forever and turn it into a film sequel to The Detective, actor Frank Sinatra turned down the opportunity to reprise the Joe Leland role. The story was then reworked as a potential sequel to Commando, the 1985 Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick. After Arnie passed, the idea then was modified again, becoming a standalone story and fashioned as a vehicle for a young, up and coming actor not at all known for action movies, Bruce Willis. Cast as a younger version of the Leland character, now named “John McClane,” a script based on Nothing Lasts Forever became a little movie we know as Die Hard.
And the rest, by golly, is history.
Die Hard the movie, while following the novel’s broad strokes, is all but totally removed from its Joe Leland/Detective DNA. That said, a handful of the film’s most memorable characters and scenes are drawn directly from the book’s pages while certain key plot elements are changed, arguably for the better so far as creating an awesome action movie is concerned. Die Hard, as we all know, was a monster success when it was released in the summer of 1988, launching Willis on a career trajectory that continues to this day and cementing him as one of the iconic action stars of the 80s and beyond. A sequel was a no-brainer, but what was it gonna be about?
Perhaps looking for a similar stroke of good luck, 20th Century Fox film execs cast about for source material which might provide fodder for John McClane’s next adventure. They found what they were looking in the pages of 58 Minutes, a thriller published in 1987 from veteran novelist Walter Wager, who had already enjoyed successful adaptations of his previous novels Viper Three (adapted as Twilight’s Last Gleaming) and Telefon starring Charles Bronson. As the first Die Hard film did with Nothing Lasts Forever, Die Hard 2: Die Harder follows more or less the same beats as 58 Minutes. There’s still an airport on Christmas Eve that’s about to be hammered by a winter blizzard, and terrorists seizing control and preventing planes from landing as they pursue their own agenda. In the novel, it’s an NYPD police captain forced to wage a one-man battle against the bad guys, with 58 minutes until the plane carrying his daughter crashes as it runs out of fuel. In something of a reverse from the first film’s development, this time the script takes Wager’s original standalone tale and retools it to fit in with the still relatively fresh John McClane “mythos.”
Die Hard 2 did even better box office business in the summer of 1990 than its predecessor two years earlier, pretty much guaranteeing a third installment in what was most definitely a “tentpole film franchise” of the sorts studios tend to drool over. While this first sequel went into production hot on the heels of the original film, the gestation for the third McClane adventure took a little longer. A handful of scripts were written, all rejected by Bruce Willis. Then, producers read Simon Says, a script written by Jonathan Hensleigh for what was to be an altogether different and standalone film starring Brandon Lee before that actor’s untimely death. It was subsequently considered as the basis for what would have been the fourth Lethal Weapon movie before Hensleigh reworked it into John McClane’s third cinematic outing, Die Hard With A Vengeance.
As there wasn’t a novel which could be repackaged as a “movie tie-in” featuring promotional art to hype the new film, a novelization of the new movie’s script was commissioned, written by author Deborah Chiel and published alongside the movie’s release in 1995. Like many novelizations of this era, the adaptation takes advantage of the room a book affords and adds needed and much-welcome backstory to McClane, Zeus, and other characters. While this material likely would’ve slowed down the film’s fairly manic pacing, it works pretty dang well in the novelization in much the same manner author David Morrell was able to add some needed heft to his adaptations of the films Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III, which of course were sequels to First Blood, the movie based on his original novel.
It would be twelve years before John McClane returned to the silver screen, with 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard. Unlike its predecessors, this fourth installment was not based on an unrelated novel or film script. Instead, the movie’s story is inspired by “A Farewell to Arms,” an article by writer John Carlin which appeared in the May 1997 issue of Wired magazine. Screenwriters Mark Bomback and David Marconi take the article’s premise – hackers seizing control of America’s computerized infrastructure – and run with it, personifiying the threat with the creation of bad guy Thomas Gabriel and the wayward hacker turned reluctant hero, Matthew Farrell, who ends up helping none other than grizzled NYPD detective John McClane to save the day. As it has no previous novel or script to lean on, this constituted the most “original” Die Hard story to date, and this would remain the case until 2013’s A Good Day to Die Hard, which was a completely original script not based on any previous source material.
Elsewhere, John McClane would enjoy adventures in another medium: comics! Beginning in the summer of 2009, BOOM! Studios gave us Die Hard: Year One, which turned out to be an 8-issue series that introduced us to a young NYPD officer named John McClane, 12 years before the events of the original Die Hard film. McClane is a uniformed cop in the summer of 1976, working the beat in the midst of Bicentennial celebrations and of course things go sideways as they can only do when John McClane is involved.
My biggest hangup with this story was that I thought it undermined McClane’s character as presented in the first film, in which he’s just an everyday guy to this point in his life and who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances well outside his probable expectations as a police detective. Giving him an “origin story” set years later takes away from the idea the first Die Hard film is McClane’s origin story. That’s his Casino Royale or Batman Begins (to borrow phrasing from the trade paperback collection’s back cover copy). Even Die Hard 2 leans into this idea within its own narrative, with various characters commenting on how McClane came to prominence after the events of the first film and Colonel Stuart taunting him at one point about seeing him on TV after those same events and telling McClane, “I thought you were out of your league on Nightline.”
Skip ahead to 2018 and the release of A Million Ways to Die Hard, a graphic novel from Insight Editions. Thirty years after the events of the original Die Hard film, retired John McClane finds himself facing off against a new adversary: “a psychotic serial killer with a theatrical taste for casting his victims in reproductions of Hollywood’s greatest and deadliest films!” I’ve not yet read this graphic novel and neither have I even seen a copy, so my comments here are based on info provided from Insight’s website and some Googling. It seems like an interesting setup with potential as well as crossover appeal for thriller and horror movie fans as the bad guy recreates scenes from popular films. The reviews haven’t been very kind, but I’m still interested in reading it for the sake of “Die Hard completeness.” For those who may be interested, follow this link to Insight’s page for the book, where you can see sample pages and all the purchasing deets.
Speaking of completeness, an article on this topic isn’t really done until I add a bit about this interesting entry to my Die Hard book shelf: Old Habits. Apparently, this story began life as a spec script for what its writer, author Ben Trebilcook, hoped might become the sixth on-screen adventure for John McClane, Old Habits Die Hard. Set thirty years after the original film, John McClane travels to Japan to be honored by the Nakitomi Corporation for his service to the company and its employees during that crisis so long ago, and :: checks notes :: “of course things go sideways as they can only do when John McClane is involved.”
I don’t often quote myself, but what the hell. Yippie Kai Yay, Mr. Editor.
For those interested, you can read a breakdown of the script by following this linky type thing, and I have to say that based on this review I think it had the potential to be a kick-ass movie. A lot of people seem to think the same way. For DAMN sure it would’ve been better than the previous outing, and I have no problem telling you my ass would’ve been in a theater seat on opening night.
My internet hunting turned up conflicting reports on which came first: the script or the novel Old Habits, which takes the script’s story while “filing off all the serial numbers” to give us a standalone adventure focusing on a character of Mr. Trebilcook’s own creation, retired police detective Joe Brady. There are no overt references to any of the characters or events from any of the Die Hard films, but hardcore fans will still get a kick out of this sequel-in-spirit, which is right in line with popular action adventure novels and TV series like 24 or Jack Ryan. If that sort of thing is your bag (:: raises hand :: I mean, just come look at my bookshelves), then be sure to give this a go. You can find it for sale on Amazon.com.
Okay, we’re done, right? Nope. I can’t leave you without just one more thing.
Arguably one of the greatest books ever written has to be A Die Hard Christmas, which makes total sense as Die Hard is indeed one of the greatest – if not THE GREATEST – holiday stories ever committed to our collective memory. Within the pages of this wonderful little tome you’ll find the tale of John McClane and Hans Gruber, two men at cross purposes on Christmas Eve. Machine guns, plastic explosives, rocket launchers…Ho Ho Ho! This belongs next to The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, The Polar Express, and A Charlie Brown Christmas in your holiday reading selections. Of course you can totally buy your own copy right now, from Insight Editions. Check it out here.
Okay. Now I’m done.