Ivy, 1979 (1988 reprint), 232 pages, C$6.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-8401-0229-5
You remember DIE HARD? Bruce Willis stuck in a skyscraper with terrorists? Alan Rickman as the bad guy with a weird European accent? “Yippey-Ka-Yay”? The hero throwing himself down the roof with a fire hose attached to his waist? Exploding helicopter? Glass shards embedded in foot? “I now have a machine-gun, ho-ho-ho?” One of the best action movies ever?
Of course you remember DIE HARD. Everyone does. It’s a bona-fide modern film classic. It’s worth viewing every Christmas.
But what you probably don’t remember is that the film is based upon a novel, Roderick Thorp’s Nothing Lasts Forever. And what you really don’t know is how much the film improves upon the book.
Oh, it’s obvious that the two works are connected. In both cases, one lone man dispatches a busload of terrorists inside a high-rise building. The various action beats of the film are generally original to the screenplay, though the same general locations (elevator shaft, executive suite, roof) are used. The dramatic arc is identical, gradually mowing down through enemy ranks up to the final mano-a-mano showdown. But even with similar premises, the differences can be dramatic.
Most significantly, the protagonist of Nothing Lasts Forever is nothing like Bruce Willis. Joe Leland (not John McClane) is a sixty-something man, an ex-New York detective with a clouded past, a wrong-man-condemned affair presumably stemming from a previous novel. He’s divorced, slightly bitter and not really prone to wisecracks. The author doesn’t wait a long time before using his alter-ego to fulfill deep wishes; barely twenty-five pages in the novel, Leland’s get a date with a woman nearly half his age. Creepier: the damsel-in-distress in the novel is the daughter of the protagonist rather than his wife.
Where it gets interesting, though, is in the tone shift from novel to screenplay. Whereas the book is dark and nasty, the film is joyful and uplifting. Antagonist-wise, we go from political terrorists to high-tech robbers. Thorp intended to write a “serious” thriller; Screenwriter Stephen de Souza, coached by producer Joel Silver, obviously meant to sketch a mass-market blockbuster. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the conclusion of the novel, in which not only does Leland learns that his daughter is up to no good (P.207-208: “’Klaxon Oil has promised to supply the Chilean fascist regime with arms… Your daughter is one of the principals in this illegal transfer of weapons.”) but she actually dies, dragged outside the skyscraper’s 32nd floor by the corpse of the lead terrorist as he’s shot by the protagonist. Talk about a downer!
But outside the obvious cheer of DIE HARD’s revised ending, the clean mechanics of the film contrasted to the often-muddled structure of the book clearly illustrate what a good cinematographic adaptation should be. The temporal unity of the action is tightened: The film ends at dawn while the novel drags on until nearly eleven AM. The film squeezes in an early ironic confrontation between hero and villain. Comparing both versions, the film comes out as a leaner, more focused work, a pure thrill machine unburdened by any higher aspiration, yet more effective because it doesn’t dwell on whatever issues bugged the novelist. Compare and contrast Leland’s internal monologue about women in positions of authority versus DIE HARD’s elegant watch symbolism and you’ll see for yourself.
That’s not even touching upon the things that film can do better than prose. While the jumping-off-roof, breaking-window, being-dragged-by-falling-hose scene is in both the book and the novel, the written version seems limp and lacking in energy compared to the taut filmed sequence.
In the end, Nothing lasts Forever is an average novel turned in a superior film, a book more interesting as an origin piece than a work by itself. Worth a look for fans of the film who want to understand why it’s so good.