First, let’s get something straight — the definitive answer to the question “Is ‘Die Hard’ a Christmas movie?” is that there’s no definitive answer to that question. But before you turn away in disgust that you fell for this obvious clickbait, hear me out. As a certified Gen X cultural sherpa, I’m going to tell you every relevant detail behind a silly debate that has now morphed into a seasonal tradition. It turns out the backstory here is actually interesting and entertaining. And if you stick with me to the end, I promise there’s a fun twist to be had involving “Die Hard’s” connection to one of the most beloved Christmas films of all time, a story that’s sure to blow a few minds on the Christmas party circuit.
So one thing that always bothered me about the “Is ‘Die Hard’ a Christmas movie?” discourse is why does it only center on “Die Hard”? Those of us who grew up in the ’80s know that in a decade full of iconic action films, “Die Hard” isn’t the only one set during Christmas. In fact, just over a year before “Die Hard” was released in the summer of 1988, “Lethal Weapon” was released in theaters. Though it’s not quite as beloved as “Die Hard,” it spawned several sequels and was a mega-hit in theaters — it’s probably the film that cemented Mel Gibson’s status as one of the biggest movie stars ever. Despite being released in March, “Lethal Weapon,” about an obsessive and mentally unstable cop and his fussy partner who chase a dangerous band of drug smugglers all over L.A., is quite conspicuously set during Christmas.
Not surprisingly, both “Die Hard” and “Lethal Weapon” had something in common: They were both projects of Hollywood megaproducer Joel Silver. “One of our producers, Joel Silver, had made Lethal Weapon the previous year, which was also set during the holiday, and he had decided he liked all his movies to take place at Christmas, as they would then very likely be played on television every December, and we would all get residual checks,” observed Steven de Souza, one of the original screenwriters on “Die Hard.” “Obviously, he was right!”
In the case of “Die Hard,” however, deciding to set it at Christmas was pretty easy in one respect. Most people don’t realize the movie was based on a 1979 pulp novel called Nothing Lasts Forever by a journeyman crime writer named Roderick Thorp. In Fact, Nothing Lasts Forever was the sequel to Thorp’s 1966 novel The Detective, which featured the same main character and was also made into an eponymous movie in 1968 starring Frank Sinatra. Though “The Detective” was actually one of the biggest hits of 1968, it’s been largely forgotten in the decades since. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to contemplate that Bruce Willis’ performance in “Die Hard” is picking up where Sinatra left off.
A lot of liberties were taken adapting Thorp’s novel into “Die Hard.” (To start, the name of the character in the books is Joe Leland, and it was changed to the iconic John McClane for the movie.) However, one important aspect of the book did stay the same. From the jacket copy of Nothing Lasts Forever: “The setting — Los Angeles. The time — the twenty-four hours between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.”
So the Christmas setting was both the result of Joel Silver’s influence and taken from “Die Hard’s” source material. Of course, this being Hollywood, there’s no way that two smash hit films in the same genre are made in successive years employing the same setting without it being copied and driven into the ground. In fact, Shane Black, the witty screenwriter behind “Lethal Weapon,” went on to write and/or direct a number of slick action and suspense films set at Christmas, including “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “The Nice Guys,” and “Iron Man 3.” (Unsurprisingly, Silver also produced two of those films.)
It’s also worth noting that in 1991, Black would write a big action film starring Bruce Willis, still coasting off the success of “Die Hard” three years earlier, “The Last Boy Scout.” Though it’s hard to definitively say “The Last Boy Scout” is defined by a Christmas setting, an early scene in the movie shows Willis’ character, a burnout private detective estranged from his wife (is there any other kind?), looking at a picture his daughter drew of Santa Claus.
Regardless, the formula did not go unnoticed at the time. Mel Gibson himself has joked about how prevalent the trend was starting in the ’80s, telling E! News, “Set it at Christmas! Lots of snow, funny little songs, music to kill by, you know?”
Joking or not, Gibson is onto something — artistically speaking, the emotional warmth and “peace on Earth, good will toward men” message of Christmas certainly heightens the contradiction and absurdity of your typical action film. In recent years, we’ve seen a number of action films that lean full bore into Christmas themes, such as “Violent Night,” legendary action director John Woo’s new revenge film “Silent Night,” and, to bring this full circle, the absurdist “Fatman,” where none other than Mel Gibson plays a Santa Claus forced to fight off a hitman hired by a 12-year-old kid disappointed he received a lump of coal.
In fact, a few years ago, “Die Hard’s” director, John McTiernan, had some interesting things to say about the contrast between the movie’s violent action and Christmas setting. “We hadn’t intended it to be a Christmas movie, but the joy that came from it is what turned it into a Christmas movie,” he said. McTiernan went on to tell People magazine that “he and producer Joel Silver compared it to the Pottersville sequence from the 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, which McTiernan said was ‘the clearest demonstration and criticism of runaway unregulated war capitalism.’” (Don’t worry, the reference here to “It’s a Wonderful Life” is not the surprise I teased in the first paragraph — we’re getting to that.)
McTiernan then finished the interview with a rant comparing the robbers-masquerading-as-terrorists in “Die Hard” to “authoritarians” and “low-status, angry men” in American politics exploiting “obsessions with guns and boots and uniforms and squad cars and all that stuff … And all those things you amass with power meant to scare us.” Which I guess makes sense, depending on how lazily you define “authoritarians” and how honest you are about who’s exploiting America’s security state for political ends. (In any event, it’s an interesting take coming from McTiernan, who did nearly a year in federal prison for hiring a notoriously unscrupulous private investigator — is there any other kind? — to wiretap film industry rivals, and the initial judge in the case said McTiernan behaved as he was “above the law,” had shown no remorse, and “lived a privileged life and simply wants to continue that.”)
Anyway, back to the matter at hand. In the end, the most cliched thing about “Die Hard” is not the fact that the movie has a Christmas backdrop. “Die Hard’s” basic plot device, where one man trapped in a confined setting meticulously picks off the bad guys one by one, has been endlessly ripped off ever since — for instance, easily the best of B-movie action star Steven Seagal’s films (that’s grading on a steep curve, I know) is essentially “Die Hard” on a battleship, and in 1995’s “Sudden Death,” action star also-ran Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a fireman who singlehandedly takes on a group of terrorists who have taken a hockey arena hostage. “Die Hard” rip-offs were so prevalent in the ’90s, in particular, that comedian Dennis Miller once joked on his old HBO show, “If Hitler walked into [Los Angeles] and said, ‘I’ve figured out how to do “Die Hard” in a hot air balloon!’ he’d have a three-picture deal.”
However, one of the most obvious “Die Hard” rip-offs of the era rarely gets credited as such. “Home Alone” is obviously family entertainment, the action is decidedly looney tunes, and it’s such an ingenious comedy in its own right there’s a reason it doesn’t usually invite direct comparisons to “Die Hard” (though I’m hardly the first guy to notice). But it came out just two years after “Die Hard,” and the plot is the same formula: A lone person trapped in a building on Christmas fights off criminals by making them walk into a series of traps.
It’s pretty safe to say that without “Die Hard,” there would be no “Home Alone.” I’m sure at some point in the pitch meeting, someone uttered the phrase “Die Hard, but for kids.” After they got done laughing about it, screenwriter John Hughes realized he could make it work. (And for what it’s worth, Hughes, best known for classic teen movies such as “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club,” was fresh off of writing “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” in 1989 — has any other filmmaker made two classic Christmas films in back-to-back years?)
Here’s where it gets interesting. Bonnie Bedelia, the actress who plays Holly Gennaro, i.e., John McClane’s wife in “Die Hard,” is the real-life aunt of “Home Alone” star Macaulay Culkin, who plays Kevin. So let’s just imagine for the hell of it that the fact that both Catherine O’Hara, who plays Kevin’s mother in “Home Alone,” and Bonnie Bedelia have red hair isn’t a total coincidence — you could easily squint and imagine the two were sisters. Let’s say that the maiden name of Catherine O’Hara’s character in “Home Alone” is Gennaro, which would make Holly Gennaro McClane and Kevin’s mom sisters. Ergo, Kevin from “Home Alone” is John McClane’s nephew in the extended “Die Hard”/”Home Alone” universe.
BOOM. You now know everything you could possibly need to know about “Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?” Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night.
Correction: The article orginally stated the familiy in “Home Alone” are not given a last name, and while it’s not mentioned in the credits online, the family name is McAlister.