The strange history of the Die Hard movies

Feature Ryan Lambie

The Die Hard series may be alive and well almost 25 years after the first movie, but there's a unique story behind the writing of each one…

As any action fanatic will tell you, Die Hard is among the best films of its type ever made. Tautly directed by John McTiernan, deceptively well shot by cinematographer Jan de Bont, and full of charismatic turns from Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman and Bonnie Bedelia, it’s seldom been bettered, even by its sequels.

What’s notable about Die Hard and the movies that followed it, though, is that there’s an intriguing story behind the origins of each one. And if you ever thought, while sitting through the sequels, that they’re all very different in tone and style from each other, there’s a very good reason for that…

Die Hard

Written by Steven E de Souza and Jeb Stuart, the screenplay for Die Hard was based on the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp. Thorp was inspired to write the novel, about German terrorists taking over a Los Angeles office block after watching The Towering Inferno, one of the most successful of Irwin Allen's star-laden disaster pictures.

Although Nothing Lasts Forever’s basic high-rise thriller concept was ported across to the movie Die Hard more or less intact, the characters were somewhat different in the novel. The protagonist in Thorp's story was a chap called Joseph Leland, a retired police officer who’s unhappily divorced. In the book, it’s his daughter rather than his wife who’s the hostage in the building, which belongs to the mythical Klaxon Oil rather than the Nakatomi Corporation in McTiernan’s film.

Interestingly, the character of Harry Ellis is remarkably similar to the one in the book; he’s a coke user, immediately disliked by the hero, and at one point colludes with the terrorists. And like Ellis in the movie, the one in the book comes to a fittingly sticky end.

When it was first optioned, Nothing Lasts Forever was going to be made as a vehicle for Frank Sinatra, who’d already starred in an adaptation of Thorp’s earlier novel, The Detective. Sinatra would have again played Joe Leland, an elder hero who’d probably spend far less time crawling through ducts and swinging from fire hoses.

When that production fell apart, Nothing Lasts Forever was reworked as another 80s action vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, which would have served as a sequel to his 1985 hit, Commando. This would presumably have meant that Arnie would have played John Matrix again, this time heaving his rippling bulk into Fox Plaza lifts to rescue his daughter Jenny from terrorists. What a movie that would have been.

Instead, former TV actor Bruce Willis was brought on board, his character rewritten as a younger yet still cynical cop by the name of John McClane. The movie was retitled Die Hard, and the rest is action movie history.

Die Hard 2

Although written by one half of the first film’s writing duo (Steven E de Souza, with new partner Doug Richardson), the script for Die Hard 2 was taken from another novel – this one called 58 minutes by Walter Wager. First published in 1987, 58 minutes provided the basic spine of the film’s story: the hero has to take out a group of terrorists in an airport before the plane carrying his wife crashes. Richardson and de Souza reworked the story to include John McClane and his wife Holly, as well as William Atherton’s slime-bag journalist Dick Thorburg from the first movie.

Pub trivia fact: the French release of Die Hard 2 (sort of) retained the title of Walter Wager’s novel, since it was called 58 Minutes Pour Vivre, or 58 Minutes To Live.
Die Hard With A Vengeance

Like Die Hard and Die Hard 2, the third film in the series originally began life as another property entirely – and in fact, several screenplays were considered and rejected before its producers settled on the one filmed by John McTiernan in 1995.

The first screenplay considered was called Troubleshooter, and originally written on spec by one James Haggin. This would have seen McClane fight terrorists on a Caribbean cruise ship, but the idea was ditched when the producers learned that a film called Under Siege, then still in production, had a markedly similar plot. In a notable instance of Hollywood recycling, Troubleshooter’s story was later revived for the rather dire Speed 2: Cruise Control.

Later, writers including John Milius, Doug Richardson and John Fasano each had a crack at writing a Die Hard 3 story or script, but none passed muster with Bruce Willis. The problem, it seemed, was finding a scenario that hadn’t already been thought of – in the wake of Die Hard’s popularity, movies such as Cliffhanger and Executive Decision were billed respectively as Die Hard on a mountain or Die Hard on a plane, for example. 

Eventually, a script was found, written by Jonathan Hensleigh, who’d already cut his proverbial teeth on the TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles before working on a spec script called Simon Says. Written with young action star Brandon Lee in mind, the script was picked up by Warner as a possible fourth Lethal Weapon movie, which would presumably have seen Murtaugh and Riggs head to New York to put a stop to Simon the terrorist’s bomb triggering antics.

Instead, the story was retooled as another McClane adventure, which would explain why the movie feels so different from the previous two movies. McClane’s fractious, fast-talking partnership with Samuel L Jackson’s Zeus Carver (whose character was actually female in one draft of the script) feels very much like Murtaugh and Riggs’, and the city-sprawling violence feels a world away from the towering claustrophobia of Die Hard or, to a lesser degree, Die Hard 2.
Die Hard 4.0

Once again continuing the tradition of looking far afield for Die Hard story ideas, Die Hard 4.0’s plot was loosely based on an article called A Farewell To Arms, written by John Carlin and published in Wired magazine. And once again, the script began life as something else entirely; this time, it was called, and was a high-tech thriller by David Marconi, who previously wrote Enemy Of The State.

Originally intended for release in the late 90s, was postponed following the 9/11 attacks. At one point, Luc Besson was slated to produce the movie on behalf of Fox for an intended release in 2002. Again, this never happened. Eventually, Doug Richardson took the script and reworked it for John McClane’s character, though other writers would become involved in subsequent rewrites, including Mark Bomback, Kevin Smith and an uncredited William Wisher.

Interestingly, there were two other potential Die Hard 4 scripts floating around at one point, both called Die Hardest, both written by Ben Trebilcook, and both rejected. One would have been set in Tokyo, where McClane’s son worked for the Nakatomi Corporation, while the other was set in the Caribbean, and would have seen McClane and his daughter fighting shipwreck looters.

Another weird yet true fact: the film’s original title was Die Hard: Tears Of The Sun. Bruce Willis later took the Tears title and attached it to the war film he made in 2003 with director Antoine Fuqua.

Die Hard 5

To the best of our knowledge, Die Hard 5, or A Good Day To Die Hard, is the first film in the series to be based on an original script not hooked in from elsewhere. Skip Woods, the writer behind such movies as Swordfish, The A-Team and G.I Joe: The Rise Of Cobra is responsible for it, and we know it’s set in Russia, where McClane will fight a group of villains with the help of his young son Jack, played by Jai Courtney.

With even the loose festive theme of the first two movies only hinted at in the third, and ditched altogether in four and five, the only remaining thread of continuity between these increasingly outlandish movies is Bruce Willis’ character – cynical, world-weary, and always in the wrong place at the wrong time.

With Die Hard 5’s script apparently lacking the complicated history of its predecessors, we’re fascinated to see how it fits in with the rest of this long-running franchise.

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Great article, thanks! Love the Die Hard movies and looking forward to see where they go with  the new one.
Also loved the fact you go through it without one "Yippe Ki Yay!"

Die Hard 4 was not a good film, and 2 was a bit dodgy as well. However, 1 and 3 were good solid entertainment. I'd call the new one Die Hard 5: Why?

Interesting Fact, ITV 2 could put any Die Hard Movie on every night and if you accidentally land on ITV 2 at any time during it you can't switch away, no chance. you're caught. even if you watched it the night before and they're repeating it the next night. there must be a subliminal message. The worst part is if you finish watching die hard 2 and land on ITV2 +1 

"When that production fell apart, Nothing Lasts Forever was reworked as another 80s action vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, which would have served as a sequel to his 1985 hit,Commando. This would presumably have meant that Arnie would have played John Matrix again, this time heaving his rippling bulk into Fox Plaza lifts to rescue his daughter Jenny from terrorists. What a movie that would have been."
Thanks, you've ruined my day which is now going to pass in a "what could have been" montage.

I hope #5 retains its full title when released in the UK and not renamed like the last one. I quite like how they play around with it to fit DH in the title:

Die Hard
Die Harder
Die Hard with a Vengeance
Live Free or Die HardA Good Day to Die Hard

I liked #4. Probably my 3rd fave, but it was still solid - apart from the entire Jet/Truck sequence. I can forgive the massive plot holes and boat-load of coincidence that keeps it ticking just for the sheer fun.

I'm a big fan of the first two films, part three lost some of the magic and I didn't even see the ridiculously titled '4.0'. Should I bother? Thoughts, please...

To me there is a continuity between the films: it's always John McClane trapped in a confined space controlled by bad guys - but the space gets bigger each movie. Die Hard is Die Hard in a building / 2 is Die Hard in an airport / With a Vengeance is Die Hard in a city / 4.0 is Die Hard in a whole country.

Moscow sounds rubbish, but I'll still watch it - it's Die Hard, even if it isn't. Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs...

I actually really enjoyed 4.0 (or Live Free and Die Hard or whatever the hell it was called... I just call it 'Die Hard 4'.) Sure, it takes "suspension of disbelief" to its very limit, but it's enormous fun, and its set-pieces are infinitely more memorable than anything in Die Hard With A Vengeance. Most of it is carried by Bruce Willis's charisma - the one thing defining John McLane from other action heroes is that he realises what he's doing is both ridiculous and incredible. He may be seemingly indestructible, but he's not entirely nonchalant. When he flicks a terrorist off his car in an incredible stunt, he shouts, "Wow!" When he falls off an exploding plane (seriously), he laughs in disbelief. And this is why we like him.

My grandpa and I have been always a fan of the movie too bad he's not around anymore.
but I'll be looking forward 

Great article thanks, Wasn't there some rumour about Die Hard 4 being a re-tooled 24 movie too? Not sure if that was fact or not though. 

Loved the original straight away. With the others...I always came out of the cinema thinking they were crap. Then...after a few years...I start to enjoy them. Basically...what I am saying is that the Die Hard series is like a fine wine. 

Fun fact about 'Die Hard with a Vengeance' that one could learn by listening to the DVD audio commentary...they actually didn't know how to end it, and had several scenarios they were juggling around until ultimately deciding on the rather weak ending that is in the film. Even the writers/producers/director on the audio commentary admit they didn't have a solid script in place during shooting. I contend that, in it's first hour,'Die Hard with a Vengeance' is as good as anything in the first film, and better than anything the other two sequels produced. It's just unfortunate that it falls apart to such a stunning degree by the third act. We only get half of a great sequel with that one.

at last,  an article for the die hard Die Hard fans 

(w.a.t. R Herring)

"You steal my car, you rip the seat out, you kidnap me, you ask me to help you find your daughter which I very kindly do, and then you get me involved in a shoot out where people are dying and there's blood spurting all over the place, and then I watch you rip a phone booth out of a wall, swing from the ceiling like Tarzan, and then there's a cop that's going to shoot you and I save you and they start chasing me. Are you going to tell me what's going on or what? "

Thanks DOG for the Commando sequel, never knew that. Would have been fun.
DIE HARD is a classic, II & III both have good moments but IV targeted at a teen audience, no charachter development and all that CGI nuked the fridge, jumped the shark, time travelled with red know what I mean!

Got room for a few momma bears in here...or is he married?

I agree with "Solidchamp". Die Hard 3 starts well, but deteriorates by the half way point, and by the end it has decended into a miserable mess. However, I know quite a few people criticise Die Hard 4.0, (maybe just the US PG-13 version?). But I loved Die Hard 4.0, I was not expecting it to be as good as it was. After the throughly tense and entertaining first two acts, I actually really enjoyed the Fighter Plane sequence. It was an excellent set-piece, and in any other movie it would have been applauded. Bruce Willis seems to be a fan of these movies as much as the next man. And I keep my fingers crossed he has insisted on the same high standards for the 5th Die Hard movie, as he did for the fourth....

I wasn't interested in seeing Die Hard 4.0, after the Part 3 debacle, but I watched it on DVD and loved it. The action Set-Pieces try very hard to emulate the feel of the first movie, and succeeds. Howvever, there are two versions out there, the US verion (PG-13), which is heavily edited for violence and language, or the UK version (15 Certificate), which is more or less the American R- Rating. To be honest, the Americans were somewhat stiffed by the studio with the PG-13 version.

The ending of Die Hard 3 is just awful.

You should watch the UK version of Die Hard 4, not the "tame" US version.

You should watch the UK version of Die Hard 4.0, not the "tame" US version.

Solidchamp -

You should see the orginal, filmed ending of With a Vengence.  McClane trasks Simon to a bar in Eastern Europe and plays Russian Roulette... with a rocket launcher!!!  It's on the Special Edition DVD and is, frankly, terrible...

Regarding Die Hard 4.0, the US and UK got exactly the same movie, with only the titles changed. The UK 15 rated theatrical version, is still the same as the US PG-13 rated theatrical version. It's the 15 rated 'Ultimate Action Edition DVD', that differs, with dubbed in swearing and CGI blood. This also appears as the US 'Unrated' edition DVD. 

Just the facts.

The key to the Die Hard movies has always been that the environment itself was a character. The "performance" of that character is what defines if that particular Die Hard movie would be good or not.

This is why DH was such a good movie - because the tower has such a presence through the entire film. DH2 wasn't as strong, because the airport just turned in to various nondescript rooms and hallways. DH3 tends to be viewed as falling apart about halfway through - because they leave New York, which always has a presence.

And this is why DH4 was a good movie, but not a good Die Hard movie - because they were in so many places, the environments were just backdrops as opposed to being a participant in the movie.

The first Die Hard is a classic, perhaps the finest action movie ever made. The sequels are awful.

I thought all of the Die Hard's were terrible, except Die Hard with a Vengeance, I loved it as a 12 year old boy.  Tried to watch it last year, was terrible.  Seriously, bad movies.  So lame it's not even watch able to anyone that has half a brain.

@jeremy The Die Hard screenplay is often considered one of the finest of its genre. Having read it, I can say that it is an excellent written screenplay. And the 'Die Hard' movie? Well that is arguably the greatest action film of all time, and it is a sentiment I happen to agree with. Now who is this fool writting such antagonistic comments? Michael Bay, is it you...?

I can't believe you said that with a straight face.

Don't forget the other actors considered for the first Die Hard before they settled on Bruce Willis.  They had also approached Burt Reynolds, Richard Gere, and Sylvester Stallone.  Personally, I'd like to see Stallone trying to climb through the ventilation ducts.

You have a bigger book of facts than I.

Die Hard 5 was awful, sorry to say. The original film was so good. A perfect blend of tension, action & humor among other things. But what was best about it ~ is what's missing from these later Die Hard movies. Believeability. The first film was totally believeable, as was John McClane...being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sadly, it has become a CGI infested, over-the-top cliche of itself. It has de-evolved into a dumb action movie, hoping that the explosions cover up any holes of a completely ridiculous script. We don't need to be jetsetting all over Mother Russia if done properly. All the tension of Die Hard was confined to a building. IF a final film is made...I hope it returns to its roots. None of the dumbed down action for action's sake.

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