Podcast Episode 5: Is Die Hard a Christmas Movie?

In the final episode of 2018, we debate whether or not violent films like Die Hard should be considered "Christmas movies."

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Erin: Yes.

Lindsay: What?

Erin: Sorry - this episode is called “Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?”, and I was answering the question.

Lindsay: Oh, in that case, the answer is, “Hell, yes.” Obviously. Are we still really going through this? I thought this was settled.

Erin: Apparently not. A survey conducted this year by Morning Consult and the Hollywood Reporter found 62% of Americans don’t consider it a Christmas movie.

Lindsay: Wow. 62% of Americans are idiots.

Erin: I’m choosing to believe most of these people either have never seen Die Hard or haven’t seen it in a very long time.

Lindsay: I hope so, because it is clearly a Christmas movie.

Erin: The numbers suggest unfamiliarity could be at least part of the problem - the group most likely to get the question correct was 30 to 44 year-olds.

Lindsay: In other words, the generation who grew up with the movie on VHS and cable.

Erin: But even then, the “no’s” outnumber the “yeses.” A lot of them might be dismissing it based on a vague impression, but I think we need to acknowledge others just have a very different definition of what constitutes a “Christmas movie.”

Lindsay: Are there any remotely reasonable definitions that would exclude Die Hard? We’ve been reviewing and analyzing holiday films for nine years now, and in that time we’ve cycled through dozens of different tests.

Erin: Well, I think a lot of people don’t count anything that isn’t explicitly connected to religious faith and the birth of Christ.

Lindsay: I asked if there were any REASONABLE definitions. If you’re using a litmus test that excludes Scrooge, I’m dismissing you out of hand.

Erin: I mean, I completely agree, but it’s still worth understanding where these people are coming from. Others are dismissing this because it’s not family-friendly.

Lindsay: I’d show this to a ten year-old before I’d subject them to A Christmas Story. Just cover their eyes for the really bloody parts if they’re squeamish. There’s only a couple quick scenes that are at all gory, and even those are pretty tame by today’s standards.

Erin: There’s also some pretty harsh language.

Lindsay: I can’t believe you said that with a straight face.

Erin: I know, right? As if there’s a ten-year-old alive who doesn’t hear worse every time they get on a school bus!

Lindsay: What else? One brief shot of a topless woman? Some implied drug use? This might as well be a family film. And that’s not even touching on the larger issue - Christmas is not defined by rating or target audience. There’s a long tradition of horror stories and dark folk tales associated with the holiday.

Erin: Sure, Christmas occurs right after the winter solstice during the longest, darkest nights of the year. Horror’s always been a part of the holiday.

Lindsay: [ironically] Hey, what’s the plot of Die Hard again?

Erin: A man is trying to survive dark forces to reunite with his wife and children during a long night.

Lindsay: So, it’s a quintessential Christmas story, is what you’re telling me?

Erin: There’s certainly a case to be made.

Lindsay: The premise is essentially a fusion of the two sides of Christmas: the primal fear of the winter night and the hope for redemption from the dark through friends and family. This isn’t just a Christmas movie: it’s a textbook example.

Erin: There’s at least one other definition for holiday films I’ve seen used to exclude Die Hard, but you are not going to like it.

Lindsay: It can’t be worse than the other two.

Erin: Some people fall back on subjective impressions. A movie’s a Christmas movie because it elicits an emotional response that they associate with the holidays.

Lindsay: It makes them feel warm and fuzzy, in other words.

Erin: I told you you wouldn’t like it.

Lindsay: But that’s so… stupid.

Erin: I have a little sympathy, only because there is some precedent for this on the other side of the spectrum. A couple movies - really I’m just talking about Wizard of Oz and Sound of Music - have become sort of honorary Christmas films. There’s nothing about those movies themselves that connects them to the holidays, but decades of being broadcast in December have linked them in the public consciousness.

Lindsay: This is a slippery slope. If Wizard of Oz is a Christmas movie, why not Fellowship of the Ring or some of the Harry Potter movies? How about Aquaman - that just came out this Christmas, after all.

Erin: I agree it’s a bad litmus test. It also excludes movies which are clearly holiday-themed but haven’t become widely known yet. If no one’s seen something, how could they associate it with Christmas?

Lindsay: I think there’s an argument to be made that cultural association might be necessary for something to be considered a Christmas classic, but it shouldn’t have anything to do with whether or not it’s a Christmas movie.

Erin: No. We discovered a long time ago we’re better off defining a Christmas movie by its setting. If 50% or more of a movie occurs on or around Christmas, we count it. We’ve got a handful of addendums to that for movies where classic Christmas songs originated or where Christmas is deeply significant to the plot despite taking up less time--

Lindsay: We also give movies a pass if they feature Santa, Rudolph, Frosty, Christmas Elves, or other holiday figures, even they’re not set during Christmas. But, honestly, if you want to dispute the claim that Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July is a Christmas movie… go ahead. I’m willing to leave that as a matter of opinion.

Erin: Unlike Die Hard - if you think Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie, you are just plain wrong.

Lindsay: Yeah, that one’s a fact. Because, first and foremost, it’s entirely set during Christmas Eve and Christmas.

Erin: We want to state, unequivocally, that this is enough. Even if there weren’t thematic connections, tonal reasons, and holiday music permeating the film… its setting alone should be enough to settle the matter.

Lindsay: But 62% of you apparently disagree.

Erin: Some of you might think a movie can’t be considered a Christmas movie if its date could be moved without changing the plot.

Lindsay: But, couldn’t you make an argument that that could be true of every movie? Like, it would be weird if Miracle on 34th Street were set at Easter, and Kris thought he was the Easter Bunny, but you could technically do the same story. Or Bob Cratchit could be asking for Arbor Day off - there’s no reason the three spirits in A Christmas Carol need to be holiday themed, if horror isn’t a part of the holiday.

Erin: For that matter, there’s nothing intrinsic to the plot of the birth of Christ that necessitates it taking place on December 25th. For example, the version of the story appearing in the Bible is set in the fall.

Lindsay: Right. They moved it to December for some reason. What was that again?

Erin: They liked the connection with the winter solstice. The whole “returning light to turn back the longest night” thing.

Lindsay: The point is, if you try imposing qualifiers on stories that are set at Christmas counting as Christmas media, your argument falls apart really fast.

Erin: That said, Die Hard does pretty well under those conditions. The holiday setting is incorporated into the plot, as well as the theme. The Christmas party is a key plot point, and we’ve already talked about possible solstice connections, but of course there’s more.

Lindsay: Over time, we’ve found the more interesting question is why a particular movie is set at Christmas. In the case of Die Hard - and most Christmas action movies for that matter - the primary answer is contrast. This was true for Three Days of the Condor, it’s true for Lethal Weapon, and it’s true for Die Hard.

Erin: It’s worth noting Die Hard uses this differently. Most Christmas action movies use the discrepancy between the holiday backdrop and the violent story to create a sense of unease. The makers of Die Hard actually wanted to tell a lighter story; the Christmas elements are instead used to introduce a sense of joy, to borrow a term that’s thrown around the commentary track. The contrast is still there, but the intent is different.

Lindsay: The other movies I mentioned were embracing their noir roots, while Die Hard went in a different direction.

Erin: What’s really interesting is that it wasn’t originally supposed to. The book Die Hard is based on was much darker, and it used the holidays to highlight the horrific elements rather than distract from them.

Lindsay: The book isn’t called Die Hard - it’s called Nothing Lasts Forever. The title, “Die Hard,” was created by Shane Black and used on his script for what later became The Last Boy Scout, but the producer asked if he could slap it on the adaptation of Nothing Lasts Forever instead.

Erin: I think you’ve thoroughly confused everyone.

Lindsay: Not yet. Before settling on the title, “Nothing Lasts Forever,” Roderick Thorp considered naming it “Sky High.” There - now everyone’s confused.

Erin: At any rate, Nothing Lasts Forever is the sequel to the novel, “The Detective,” which was, itself, adapted into a movie in 1968, starring Frank Sinatra as Detective Joe Leland.

Lindsay: It’s not a bad movie. Some of it aged awkwardly, but overall it holds up.

Erin: Thorp wrote Nothing Lasts Forever in 1979, and it’s pretty clear he wanted it adapted into a movie, and that he probably assumed Sinatra would reprise his role.

Lindsay: But by the time they were getting ready to make Die Hard, Sinatra was no longer interested, and the director had other ideas for the character and tone.

Erin: Because when I say the book was dark, I mean it was really dark. Leland doesn’t stop the terrorists from killing the person he’s trying to protect, he kind of devolves into a bloodthirsty monster, and the book ends with him getting shot and passing out on Christmas. We never even learn if he wakes up.

Lindsay: So the novel was a bleak detective story, but it was still set during the holidays.

Erin: Oh, it is aggressively set at Christmas. Thorp does not let you forget - there are numerous references to the date, to the party, to lights and decorations, and to what the season is supposed to represent. It’s not even subtle about exploiting the juxtaposition between the holiday and the senseless killing.

Lindsay: So despite major changes between the book and the movie, the Christmas setting was deeply significant to both versions.

Erin: And, while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about another movie that likely inspired Die Hard: the 1961 Hammer Film, Cash On Demand.

Lindsay: This stars Peter Cushing as a bank manager who’s forced to assist in a robbery after a gang kidnaps his family. It’s a tense, tightly-written thriller. Set at Christmas, of course.

Erin: Of course. After all, it’s really just an updated version of A Christmas Carol.

Lindsay: The bank manager is a horrible husband and boss. He’s heartless, cruel, and fixated on money, and the experience helps him see the error in his ways.

Erin: Yeah, I honestly don’t want to give too much away - I really like this movie. What’s important to the topic we’re looking at is that it’s a version of A Christmas Carol, and Die Hard [ahem] borrows freely from the script.

Lindsay: We assume. It could be coincidence.

Erin: It would have to be a pretty big coincidence. A fairly iconic line from Die Hard is lifted almost verbatim from Cash On Demand. And that’s in addition to the story similarities: both men are alone, playing a game of wits against a criminal mastermind in an attempt to save loved ones held hostage. I’d be shocked if the antagonist of Cash On Demand weren’t the inspiration for Hans Gruber’s character.

Lindsay: John McClane’s arc is also a lot closer to that of the protagonist of Cash On Demand than it is to Joe Leland’s. We’re certainly not the first to note there are similarities between McClane and Scrooge’s stories - Cash On Demand might be the missing link connecting them.

Erin: So regardless of how you want to look at it - from a story, thematic, setting, or tonal perspective, Die Hard is a Christmas movie.

Lindsay: There are absolutely movies out there where it’s debatable, where educated people can disagree on whether or not something is a Christmas movie. But this… it’s just not one of them. If you don’t think Die Hard is a Christmas movie, you either haven’t seen enough Christmas movies, or you need to rewatch Die Hard. End of story.

Erin: This episode of the Mainlining Christmas Podcast was written, edited, scored, and masterminded by me, Erin Snyder…

Lindsay: And me, Lindsay Stares. As always, visit us at MainliningChristmas.com for reviews of Christmas books, movies, specials… you name it.

Erin: If any of you listening were part of the 62%, we really hope this episode has shown you the light of Christmas day rising after the long, dark night.

Lindsay: And we hope those of you who were already fans of this Christmas classic enjoyed our discussion.


Erin: Oh - I almost forgot! Die Hard’s great and all, but the best Christmas action movie of all time is First Blood. Die Hard’s number two.

Lindsay: Merry Christmas, everybody!