Anybody who has ever read the name of this blog will probably be able to guess that I bloody love Die Hard. It’s not only a great Christmas film but it is still one of the greatest action movies of all time. It is peak Bruce Willis and it introduced Hollywood to the talents of Alan Rickman. Die Hard is a legendary film that I watch at least once every year. I look forward to watching it before Christmas and I feel like I’d be missing out if I didn’t. What I’ve never done, is read the book it was based on. I’ve had a copy of it for years but never dared read it. As book lovers, we expect the novel to better but, as I’ve said before, there are plenty of contradictions out there. Reading Jaws after seeing the film is crazy but at least that has something going for it. And I love Jaws but it’s doesn’t hold as dear a place in my heart as John McClane’s skyscraper adventure. This year, I decided to be brave and opened the pages. That was at the start of December. It took me until last night to finish it. That should give you enough of an indication about my views on it.
It’s difficult to look at this novel without being influenced by the film. Die Hard has some flaws, I will freely admit, but its plot is tight and the pace is perfect. The novel it was based on offers neither of those qualities. This is a book that so often gets distracted in meaningless subplots that don’t really go anywhere. At times there is a bizarre stream of consciousness to the novel and it ends up feeling disjointed. We suddenly find ourselves reading about something unrelated and unnecessary. I guess this is meant to highlight the character’s delicate mental state during the events but it just ends up being a weird reading experience. There were times when I thought my edition had skipped a few sections because it just didn’t seem to make sense. He’d start talking about a new topic but we’d pick up in the middle of a thought.
The novel finds itself on more solid ground when the action really gets going. That takes a while as the novel opens with the main character’s journey to Los Angeles. Joe Leland is an ex-cop who is visiting his daughter and grandchildren for Christmas. He is a confident man who certainly has an eye for the ladies. Much of the plot is taken up with him talking to or thinking about the young flight attendant he met on the plane. It’s weird and kind of uncomfortable. But, nevermind. When he finally reaches his daughter’s work, the building is taken over by German terrorists. They capture everyone but Joe and start killing off the bigwigs. Joe has to navigate his way around the building and prevent his family from getting hurt.
Pretty familiar, right? The book and the film do overlap quite a bit but there are plenty of key differences. Most notably in the characterisation of Joe and John. Joe is much older and less sympathetic a character than McClane. Not a bad thing but I never really felt myself worrying about his safety. If he died, he died. You also get to see a lot more of his inner thought process and how comfortable he becomes with the killing of these terrorists. It’s an interesting idea but it is never quite developed as much as I’d want. He basically just tells us, it’s fine and that’s that. There is very little nuance in the story. It just accepts what Joe does as the right thing. To further back this up, his new flight attendant friend is constantly telling him that she understands why he’s killing people. As if the acceptance of a woman is a pardon on all the bloodlust.
All of the best moments in the film (the bare feet, the explosion in the elevator shaft, the air ducts, and taping a gun to his back) are all present in the book but are handled in a much sloppier way. Roderick Thorp doesn’t seem well equipped to describe action sequences so it’s easy to get lost. It also means that there is much less tension within the book. The plot moves forward in such a messy way that you don’t really know what’s happened until it’s too late to feel on edge about it. It also doesn’t help that the book goes on for much longer than the film. John McClane sorts out all of his pesky Germans in a matter of hours but it takes Joe Leland about half a day. It just makes everything seem less immediate and worrying.
I admit that I haven’t read Thorp’s previous book The Detective, so it’s possible that I’m missing some important insight into his character. I still don’t think having read that would have made this book seem any better to me. Although there are some things I liked about it. The tone was a lot darker in places and I liked the ending. Both the book and the film were keen to point out that they are introducing a man who can (and does) get hurt in the line of duty. The book takes this vulnerability even further. I understand why the film changed it but there was a lot of potential in the book’s own finale. I also think it was interesting having the terrorists having more positive intentions. Unlike the film, which portrays them as common thieves, the Germans in the book are trying to uncover the dodgy workings of the company and its employees. They aren’t going about things in the right way but their intentions are good. It makes it much harder to figure out who is at fault and a much better writer would have been able to develop this idea wonderfully.
Still, those few things aren’t enough to make this book a must-read. Any fans of the film might be intrigued to discover where it came from but they’ll definitely finish knowing that the source material doesn’t match up. To say that such a slick and entertaining film was made out of this mess is amazing. It shows you what a great writer can do with an interesting idea and what a mediocre one can do. I think it’s safe to say that, while the film remains on my annual Christmas film playlist, the book won’t be making a comeback in my TBR list.