Die Hard has been one of my favorite movies since on first saw it on TV as a child; it sparked my love affair with Bruce Willis1 and with antiheroes in general. When, only a few years later, I stood in a used book store in Fremont, Nebraska, and read the back cover of a old book called Nothing Lasts Forever and thought “Hunh, this sounds familiar” before putting it back on the shelf, I had no idea that Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel was, in fact, the inspiration for Willis’ break-out movie.
There’s a lot of similarities; there’s still a bored cop stuck in a highrise with a clutch of Teutonic terrorists; he still winds up shoeless and lacerated; he still talks to a black cop named Al Powell via CB radio. Other things are changed; instead of an estranged wife, Joe Leland (not John McClane) is visiting his estranged daughter Stephanie. Instead of a middle-aged (late-30s?), wisecracking nobody, our protagonist is actually a retired policeman who’s kind of a big deal in the security world; so McClane/Leland goes from being young and unimportant to old and famous and well-versed in tactics and gunplay.
The effect here is twofold: first, there’s a sense of geriatric anger and frustration that imbues Leland’s thoughts that is entirely disjoint from McClane’s alternating fear and snarky comments; second, Leland responds viscerally to killing in a way that McClane doesn’t. Both characters break the neck of their first terrorist; McClane does it by tossing a blond German down the stairs, where he lies still, but Leland does it by narrating how he places his shoulder at the back of the neck, shifts his weight, and feels the popping separation—then he vomits.
In Nothing Lasts Forever, the corporation, Klaxon Oil, is basically funneling money into a South American dictatorship; the terrorists, then, are actually leftist guerrillas, after a fashion, and their entire plot does seem to entail disrupting Klaxon’s operations, publicizing their crimes, and blowing $6 million in cash onto the streets of L.A. The makers of Die Hard actually make fun of that motivation by having leftist politics serve as a red herring so that the terrorists can steal bearer bonds and “sit on a beach, earning 20%”. I suppose the idea lost merit in the intervening decade between the book’s release and the filming of the movie.
In these respects, Nothing Lasts Forever represents a more subtle work that spends time cultivating the motivations of its characters; Leland spends no small amount of time reminiscing about his marriage and divorce, the eventual death of his ex-wife, his career as a security consultant, and more importantly, the preconditions and effects of violence. At the beginning of the book, when Leland flourishes his Browning at an irate taxi driver to make it to his flight on time, Thorp was actually giving us the first of many meditations on our disposition to violence. If Leland had not been so quick to pull his gun in order to solve a problem, he may have missed his flight; he would then not be trapped in a highrise fighting twelve armed terrorists. If he hadn’t put up armed resistance, would the terrorists have killed as many people as they did2? In the movie, it’s clear that the terrorists planned to blow up their hostage to cover their escape, but the notion is left in doubt in the book, given the gloss of “freedom fighter” mystique that clashes with the terrorists cold-blooded-murder personas. In other words, Nothing Lasts Forever is a short pulp novel which is actually a sustained inquiry into the repercussions of easy violence, even if only threatened or implied.
One notable deficit is that because the authorial voice is third-person, but not omniscient (that is, it’s limited to Leland’s knowledge), we miss out on the characterization of Hans Gruber (Anton “Little Tony” Gruber in the book) as done so brilliant by Alan Rickman. In the book, Gruber is a throwaway villain, just as the other terrorists, and even much of the action, is itself throwaway in the manner of so many action pulps of the Don Pendleton variety. Al Powell—in the book a baby-faced rookie—is similarly one-dimensional, little more than a voice on the radio, rather than an empathetic character with his own backstory.
Nothing Lasts Forever, then, is a more subtle work in the sense that its approach to its hero as a sad, lonely older man makes for a rather unique hero, and his framing of the villains as violent (approaching sadistic) leftist Robin Hoods introduces doubt into the neat good/bad binary that we like to expect from pulpy action stories; it is also, however, a thinner and less substantial work in that its cast of supporting characters is one-dimensional, and its narration therefore spirals into mopey solipsism. Nothing Lasts Forever is simply sad; it begins with a sad man regretting the loss of his relationships, and ends with a bloody, critically-injured man regretting the loss of even more relationships and questioning whether his heroism actually cost more lives than it saved. I’m left with no doubt that the film version is better3, but I can’t quite decide if the book is good in the first place. I suppose that means Thorp did something right.
- Which grants me partially immunity to the badness of even his worst movies—I kind of enjoy Hudson Hawk—as long as they don’t involve Justin Long.[↩]
- Note: many more civilians die in the book than in the movie[↩]
- Indeed, the film so eclipsed its progenitor that later versions of the book were retitled Die Hard, a fate which also befell Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep after the success of Ridley Scott’s film adaptation, Blade Runner.[↩]