With Christmas behind us and the New Year just around the corner, it's a pretty safe assumption that most of my readers have watched Die Hard sometime in the last few weeks.
Based loosely on the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, Die Hard almost single-handedly redefined what an action movie could be. While stars like Schwarzenegger and Stallone dominated the 80's box office as invincible super commandos, Die Hard broke the mold in giving us Bruce Willis as Regular Guy John McClane. It also confined the action to a single, claustrophobic locale, creating a high-octane game of cat and mouse between McClane and the heavily armed villains.
"Unique Location + Everyman Hero + Over-the-Top Action" proved to be a winning formula. It changed the genre forever, spawned countless imitators, and created a film so memorable that it was successfully memed into a bonafide holiday tradition decades later.
It's hardly surprising people still find so much to say when discussing the film.
What I find odd is that people hardly ever talk about the novel that inspired the movie. Well, this year I decided to read it for myself. And while I enjoyed the book immensely, I can see why it rarely gets talked about.
Folks, Nothing Lasts Forever is dark.
Tonally, it's almost the polar opposite of the movie it inspired, focusing on themes like isolation, extreme violence, and how exposure to both can dehumanize you.
Minor spoilers ahead.
Nothing Lasts Forever is the story of Joe Leland, ex-WWII aviator, retired detective, and semi-retired PI and security consultant.
Joining his estranged daughter Stephanie at her company Christmas party, Joe is looking forward to a chance to reconnect. He's also looking forward to spending some time with his two grandchildren, who are at the party with their mother.
His plans are quickly shot down when a group of German terrorists led by Anton Gruber take over the building. Outnumbered, barefoot, and armed with nothing but a 9mm Browning Hi-Power, Joe manages to evade the terrorists and hide.
And while that set-up might be identical to the film's, Joe Leland's inner narration reveals him to be a starkly different character than John McClane.
The gang. He'd seen four. Even with their radios, they needed two people downstairs, in the lobby and in the control room. The one in the lobby was probably sending the police away at this moment. It would take Leland ten to fifteen minutes to get down on foot to the street level from here. He would have the element of surprise in his favor, and would probably be able to get out to the street. Then what?
In other words, Joe Leland isn't a cop trying to end the situation peacefully and bring the terrorists to justice.
From the outset, it's clear he's an armed professional forced into a one-man war. He gives no quarter to his enemies, shooting from ambush, setting booby traps, and relying on the same kind of hit-and-run tactics the terrorists themselves use against governments.
He fights dirty because the stakes are high. He knows if he doesn't win, the LAPD's heavy-handed tactics—which he helped develop—will put the hostages at risk. It's a race to kill the terrorist before the LAPD comes in, guns blazing.
As I mentioned above, Nothing Lasts Forever uses the action to explore themes like isolation, extreme violence, and how rapidly both can change a man. After his first kill in the novel—a woman—Leland experiences shock and second thoughts. This war, he realizes, may have too high a price. By the end, he's so desensitized to the act that he'll mow down both male and female terrorists without a second thought.
The book takes this idea several steps further. In his broken, beaten, and bloody state, Joe resembles a primitive savage. When his own granddaughter spots him near the climax, she mistakes him for one of the terrorists he's been shooting into hamburger for 200 pages.
It's an important scene, and one that dramatically illustrates the novel's central theme.
After playing both hunted and hunter, the only thing separating Joe from the likes of Gruber and his butchers is his single-minded goal of saving the hostages. But to an innocent bystander, that crucial difference is impossible to see.
Indeed, it's interesting to see how such a familiar story plays out, when the action is serving a radically different purpose than the one we've grown used to.
The film has John McClane running through broken glass, crawling through the ducts like a rat, and rappelling off an exploding tower on a firehose to show us what he's willing to do to save his wife. The novel uses those same set-pieces to show us just how small the dividing line is between a man like Leland and the militant terrorists.
The other thing the novel explores—and that is almost entirely absent from the movie—is the relationship between news media and big disasters like terror attacks. Like international terrorism itself, this was new territory in 1979. "If it bleeds, it leads" might be an old saying, but by 1979 Americans were learning just how ghoulish the camera's fixation on sensational violence could be.
Leland eventually figures out how to use the live news coverage to his advantage, manipulating events on-camera so the terrorists watching see exactly what he wants them to.
It's makes for yet another interesting contrast between Leland and the terrorists, and another illustration of how similar they really are. Once again, Leland isn't using the methods of a Law Enforcement Officer. He's using the tactics of international terrorism against the terrorists.
All in all, Nothing Lasts Forever is a memorable read, a solid entry into the action thriller genre that tackles heavier issues than the film it inspired. It's an exploration of the "Wolves vs Sheepdogs" dichotomy, written long before the phrase gained popularity. It also refuses to give the reader easy answers.
It's very good, but it's about as far from the bombastic, feel-good action of Die Hard as you can possibly get.
Just don't go in expecting the same experience you get from the movie.
If you're looking for a book that does offer bombastic, feel-good action, Elf Hard is available on Kindle.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.