Maybe it’s because I work in the film industry (kinda), or because until this year I hadn’t read very widely outside of contemporary fiction – but I always assumed that there were certain genres of literature that just worked better on the movie screen. Action thrillers being the main case in point.
So when I learned on this Krimson Rogue episode that DIE HARD was based on a book, I was super skeptical about how any literature could match the fast-paced explosive action of the blockbuster. Still, I was intrigued.
This novel absolutely blew my head off (no pun intended. Okay, maybe a little.) Not just because it managed to fill me with all the thrill of the action scenes, but because of how fantastic the writing itself actually was. Thorp can write like the best of them.
It became very clear to me once I finished the book, that the film had totally American-ized the plot to make it more palatable for the audience. A trick heavily applied to many great works of fiction, including the incredible ‘Let the Right One In’ by John Ajvide Lindqvist which had both a Swedish & US movie adaptation. You can guess which one was darker.
Key things that Hollywood likes to do when taking a novel and transforming it into a blockbuster (which are designed to appeal to everyone) is to:
1) Make characters younger and attractive
2) Show a more obvious, sometimes stereotypical distinction between the hero and villain
3) Make gender, orientation etc. more clearly defined
4) Make everything more flashy, even if it’s harder to believe
5) Drop in some catchphrases
6) Shred most of the secondary storylines (I get it, only so long to get through the story)
7) End the movie with some sort of redemption (hero always wins and loses little)
In a way, I’m glad I’d seen DIE HARD first. The dampening of the story by Hollywood led me into a false sense of security and so when the two massive twists at the end of the novel hit, I was genuinely shocked speechless.
So rid yourself of the idea that this is John McClane. Joe Leland is a much more three-dimensional protagonist.
‘Nothing lasts forever’ is the story of Leland, an ex-World War II veteran and security consultant who travels somewhat reluctantly to LA in order to spend Christmas with his daughter ‘Steffie’ and his two grandkids. Steffie works for a massive corporation, Klaxon Oil, and Leland is invited to her office where she’s celebrating a momentous (and suspicious) infrastructure deal just secured in Chile, worth millions of dollars. Little do they know that German terrorist Anton Gruber (nicknamed ‘Little Tony’) has decided to crash the party and hold the employees hostage, to deliver a message to America. Leland manages to avoid their initial roundup, and spends the novel fighting back against the terrorists who have his family hostage.
It’s a great storyline, full of twists and turns, and overall it’s much darker than the movie. Leland is more literary than camera-ready, and the careful character development through moments of flashbacks and musings are what make you root for him almost immediately.
He’s experienced a lot of loss already in his life – most notably his wife, Karen, who he divorced and lost to a heart attack 8 years later: ‘A marriage as old and bad as theirs was no better than a haunted house.’ He also feels in some ways that he’s already lost his children, who live at the other side of the country and lead very different lives to him: ‘He loved them and sent them gifts all around the year, but he understood that he knew them hardly at all, that their everyday lives were completely beyond him.’ Particularly Steffie, who is driven mostly by money and power, and appeared to be doing cocaine with her partners when Leland showed up.
Throughout the novel, LA itself is embellished like a character itself. Leland has a lot to say about the city, which he feels is shallow and corrupt. A perfect place for Little Tony to carry out his mission – firstly because of the way the city is organised, and secondly because it is leading the way of the new world; less connected and voyeuristic, ‘The lights, crowd, cameras all fit together as the way the new world understood anything. People had to see what was going on.’ As such, it provides the perfect stage for a terrorist who is known for his love of ‘the drama of death, made theater of it, straightening the tie of his victim before shooting him in the lapel.’
As far as villains go, Gruber is a worthy opponent. He’s smart, intelligent and loves the attention. Even when he doesn’t think anyone is watching, when he kills Steffie’s colleague Rivers at the start of the novel, he dresses the event and ‘dust[s] imaginary lint off Rivers’s shoulders.’ He has planned this attack meticulously, down to every detail – Leland is a wildcard he could have never expected.
Another fantastic element of this novel which I hadn’t expected was the incorporation of a handwritten chart that Leland uses to note his surroundings and plan his counterattacks.
This is no stereotypical Hollywood hero – this man needs sleep and food to keep his body going. He gets injured and has to make accommodations as his body gets weaker: ‘He was so dirty, he could feel the crust on his eyelids when he blinked, in his crotch when he moved his legs.’ He makes mistakes: ‘Now he thought he probably had made a mistake, not killing the two in the elevator.’ He experiences terror, “he was so frightened he could hardly focus his eyes”, and regret and guilt. But he does stand out from the average civilian with his knowledge of security protocols, weapons and terrorists, his critical thinking, his bravery, his quippy one-liners even in the face of mortal peril (‘“No time for that bullshit,” Leland said, and pulled the trigger’), and his can-do attitude.
The situation might be unrealistic but the human protagonist is not, and he really helps to ground this action-thriller. As well as that, the action and the amount of internal monologue was perfectly balanced to keep the intensity ramped up, while reminding you that there was more to be done than spraying bullets without assessing the consequences: ‘He shook his head – that kind of thinking would get him killed.’
So, I highly recommend this novel if you want something that will pick you up and give you a shot of adrenaline. Can anyone else recommend any good action-thrillers to me?
A few other of my favorite quotes from this novel, which could be poetic and visually dark at times:
‘Lying in an infant’s sleep under a churning, poisoned sky.’
The literal first sentence: ‘“What I don’t understand,” the taxi driver shouted over the whacking of the windshield wipers, “is what goes through a person’s mind when he mutilates somebody like that.’
‘… one of whom he recognized, goddamn it – god-damn it! – all armed with the world’s best one-man weapon.’
‘The city floated out below him, serene and twinkling on Christmas Eve, with Rivers dead on the fortieth floor, his heart looking like a piece of stew beef.’
‘Leland felt his bladder open. He thought he was going to be sick. He had to relieve himself. He breathed deeply and held on. He could hear the kid’s bladder spilling. The kid’s legs were shaking, his hands clenching, as if they did not know they were dead.’
‘When the forensics lab was finished cutting into you, you looked like a boat burned down to the waterline. That’s what they called them, canoes. They peeled the skin off your skull, too – it ripped off like the skin of a tangerine.’