Illustration by JJ Harrison

The Man Who Turned ‘Die Hard’ Into an Illustrated Christmas Book

Don’t think the Bruce Willis action film should qualify as a holiday classic? Stand-up comic Doogie Horner is here to set you straight

Since it hit theaters in the summer of 1988, Die Hard has been recognized as a groundbreaking action movie. The only ongoing debate around the film — which starred Bruce Willis as New York cop John McClane, who must rescue his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and her L.A. coworkers from terrorists led by the fiendish Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) — is whether, technically, it’s a Christmas movie. Sure, Die Hard is set during the holidays, but is that enough to qualify?

Doogie Horner has heard the debate, and he’s had enough of it: As far as he’s concerned, Die Hard is absolutely a Christmas movie. Don’t believe him? The stand-up comic and author, who previously created a Die Hard coloring book, has just published A Die Hard Christmas, an illustrated adaptation of the film that’s meant to look like a hardcover kids’ book. Using the yuletide favorite Twas the Night Before Christmas as his inspiration, Horner tells McClane’s story through rhyme. A sample verse: “The explosives were wired / to the rooftop with care / in hopes that the hostages / soon would be there.”

It’s a funny mash-up of action movie and Christmas poem, but it also helps to underline Die Hard’s connection to classic holiday literature — except with more casualties.

I recently spoke to Horner on the phone from Philadelphia to bond over our shared love of Die Hard. It was clear pretty early on in the conversation that he’s a Die Hard fanatic. “I’ve seen it two billion times,” he says at one point. “I’m always happy to talk about Die Hard.” Beyond making the case for Die Hard’s inherent Christmas-ness, Horner also discussed why he considers the movie an example of Hollywood’s High Renaissance; what one thing bugs him about the film; and why he really didn’t want to include Willis’ most famous, vulgar line in his book.

How long have you been toying with the idea of adapting Die Hard into an illustrated Christmas book?
It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I love Die Hard, and I love watching the movie at Christmas — because it’s a Christmas movie. To me, Christmas and Die Hard have always gone together, but I know a lot of people don’t feel that way. So I’ve always been hoping to find a way to help change people’s minds.

I agree with you that Die Hard is a Christmas movie. But what’s the argument that you use when people dispute that?
Some people will acknowledge that there are Christmas things in it: “Yes, it does take place at Christmas, and there is Christmas music, and Christmas things in it.” I just remind them how many Christmas things are in it. I mean, Bruce is coming home to see his family for Christmas. He is bringing his daughter a present. There is tons of Christmas music on the soundtrack: Run–D.M.C.’s “Christmas in Hollis” and “Sleigh Bells.” At the end of the movie, when he shoots [villain] Hans [Gruber], he tapes the gun to his back with Christmas packing tape.

But then, I guess, people would say that it’s not a Christmas movie because it’s violent. [Laughs] A lot of people get shot at — it has a higher body count than White Christmas. To those people, I’d say that it does have a Christmas theme. John is separated from his family, and they don’t really go into why, but it seems like he and his wife are having some relationship problems. It also seems like there’s some tension with their two separate jobs — neither of them is willing to give up their work. And at the end of the movie, it’s insinuated that they’ve patched it up and realized that what’s important is their family. They also insinuate that they’re going to work out their differences. So to me, that’s similar to the theme of a lot of Christmas movies. It’s about family, and it’s about realizing what’s important.

Yeah, I’ve always thought it was somewhat similar to A Christmas Carol: It’s about learning an important lesson, being grateful for what you have and arriving at a happy ending.
The only thing I don’t like is that they insinuate at the end of the film that Holly is going to quit her job. At the beginning, when John walks into Holly’s office, [her coworkers] Ellis and Takagi are talking about the Rolex that she’s gotten as a gift from the company. You can tell she’s a little embarrassed about it — that the watch is sort of a symbol of her job and how that separates her from John.

Then at the end of the film, when Hans is holding onto Holly’s wrist, dangling out the window of Nakatomi Plaza, he won’t let go so they unclasp the watch and he falls. I’m pretty sure that’s a symbol that Holly is going to let go of her job, and that’s how they’re going to get back together. If that’s true, that bothers me, because I think Bruce should just be a cop in L.A. She clearly has the better job. [Laughs] Go solve crime in L.A.!

You’ve obviously thought a lot about Die Hard. When did you first see it?
I don’t remember how old I was — maybe 10 or 12, something like that. We didn’t have cable at the time. My parents didn’t want to have HBO because it was too violent. But I think some cable guy came over and talked us into getting a free [trial] for a month or something. In that month, I watched so much stuff that my parents didn’t want me to see. And one of them was Die Hard. I remember watching it late at night on cable.

Was it love at first sight?
I was actually kind of an unusual kid — I didn’t watch many 1980s movies. I watched mostly old movies, like the Marx brothers and Bob Hope and Danny Kaye. I also liked old noir films and stuff like that. I didn’t like many contemporary movies because I didn’t like the picture they painted. At my age, I was supposed to be watching, like, John Hughes movies about young people, and I didn’t like that — they made me feel like shit. [Laughs] So, Die Hard was one of the few contemporary movies I liked.

How do you feel about the sequels?
I only consider the first two films canon. The first two movies are Die Hard movies, and the other movies are action films with Bruce Willis in them. [Laughs] Part of that is based on the fact that the third movie’s script [Die Hard With a Vengeance] wasn’t intended to be a Die Hard script — it was intended to be a Lethal Weapon script, and you can tell. It’s more about the duo [Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson], and there were too many location changes. Then the fourth one [Live Free or Die Hard] really fucking annoys me because it’s got all this Republican right-wing propaganda baked into it. It’s just them making fun of Democrats the whole time. I never saw the others.

You’re lucky: The fifth one, A Good Day to Die Hard, is the absolute worst. So, once you figured out that you’d adapt Twas the Night Before Christmas for your Die Hard book, did the rest of it come together pretty quickly?
I thought it was going to be easy. [Laughs] But it took a lot longer than I thought it would, because I wanted it to have [the same] meter and structure as the original poem. I didn’t know anything about poetry, so I had to learn it. It’s called a tetrameter, where it’s a certain amount of syllables and the rhymes bounce around in a certain way. There are also stresses — strong syllables and weak syllables.

So I educated myself about that. Then I tried to use specific lines from the poem when I could. I also tried to find scenes that paralleled each other in the poem and the movie. Then you have to have important scenes from the film in the poem. And, of course, there’s the rhyming. It was driving me nuts. [Laughs] I was like, “Man, what rhymes with ‘air shaft’? What rhymes with ‘Nakatomi’?”

It looks like a children’s book, but there’s obviously stuff that makes it more geared for adults — for example, you had to include “Yipee-ki-yay, motherfucker” in there.
It’s for adults, but I wanted it to be appropriate for children also. I didn’t want to put in “Yipee-ki-yay, motherfucker.” The last line originally that I wrote was, “I heard him exclaim as his limo drove away / Merry Christmas to all / And Yipee-ki-yay,” which I thought was a nice nod. But my editors said, “No, it should [end with] ‘Yipee-ki-yay, motherfucker.’” And I said, “Well, first of all, he doesn’t say it at the end. And, also, it’s the only curse word in the book, and it’s a big one.”

So, I was actually opposed to including it — I wanted it to be okay for kids. But everybody was like, “You gotta do it — we love the word ‘motherfucker.’” And I was like, “Fine, here is your curse word. Are you happy now?”

You also do stand-up. How do writing an illustrated Die Hard Christmas book and performing stand-up comedy compare?
They’re similar, but different. I mean, the reason I started doing stand-up was, I went to art school and did illustrations and writing, and I was tired of just sitting at my desk all day. Especially if you’re an artist, you just sit alone in a room and draw all day. So I wanted something that would get me out of the house, which is why I started doing stand-up. Then I discovered that there’s stuff you can say in books that you can’t say on stage because it’s too long. When you’re on stage, you have to be funny every couple of seconds. [Laughs]

So it’s a different form, and there are different subjects that you can talk about. I like in writing that you can get into deeper and longer things — like the similarities between American action films and the Italian Renaissance. You can explore stuff that isn’t funny every second but that’s still interesting.

Speaking of which, you were at New York Comic Con in October, where you did a presentation comparing the different Hollywood eras of action movies to different periods in art history. How did that go over?
I was nervous, because it was an idea I’ve had since art school, but I’ve never really discussed it in public. And so, when I talked at Comic Con, I decided that would be a good place to finally discuss it. But I was concerned — it was a pretty long PowerPoint. I’ve got these slides of Giacometti, and I’m talking about how Caravaggio and the film Taken are similar. I go through the Quattrocento and then the High Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, the Rococo, all this different stuff.

I thought it would be boring to people, but they actually really responded to it and liked it. The only time people got a little upset is when I said Con Air was Mannerism, and that it’s bullshit and bad art. [Laughs] They were like, “But I like it!” And I was like, “I’m not saying that you don’t like it — I’m just saying that it’s not good.” But, overall, it seemed to really resonate with people.

You argued that Die Hard represents Hollywood’s High Renaissance. So what do you think of all the Die Hard rip-offs that it spawned?
I think that Speed and Under Siege are actually both pretty good movies. My problem with films like Con Air is that, before Die Hard, [Hollywood action movies] were basically like Hellenistic art, where the films were pretty realistic. So you get action films in the 1970s, like Dirty Harry. Those movies are pretty realistic — everything that happens in Dirty Harry could theoretically happen in real life, because they didn’t have enough special effects to make fake shit happen.

But then in the 1980s, things get a little bit unrealistic. First Blood is a good example. That movie theoretically could happen — up until the end, where he has a machine gun and is shooting up the whole town and nobody is stopping him. Or like in Die Hard — I guess this guy could beat all these terrorists, but then as soon as he leaps off the roof, you’re like, “That’s impossible.” But you go with it, because you’re like, “Okay, this is one small, impossible thing in a mostly possible movie that’s very grounded.” That’s the little dash of imagination that elevates the film above everything that came before it. It’s like the Renaissance — Michelangelo and da Vinci did the same thing. Their artwork was basically realistic, with just a little bit of imagination.

But then what happened after that was filmmakers said, “Look how great the movies got once we added some fantasy — if we add even more fantasy, it should be even better.” And that’s how you get a movie like Con Air, where so many impossible things happen. It’s just like Mannerism, the period of art after the High Renaissance, where they just painted all this impossible shit. What happens is that it’s not grounded in reality anymore, so it’s actually less impressive and less affecting.

It’s almost Christmas. Will you watch Die Hard over the holidays?
My dad and I always want to watch Die Hard, and my mom always wants to watch something else. So we’ll also probably watch It’s a Wonderful Life, which I love. Die Hard isn’t my favorite Christmas movie — my favorite is It’s a Wonderful Life. Die Hard is probably my second.

Die Hard sounds like the perfect movie to share with your dad.
Yeah, I feel like it’s that way with most guys: How you relate to your dad is you watch the James Bond marathon together. I guess most guys watch sports with their dad, but we don’t watch sports. My dad and I bond over films like James Bond or Jason Bourne. On Father’s Day this year, I asked him, “What do you want to do?” And he said, “Let’s watch the Taken trilogy.” [Laughs] So we sat next to each other and watched Liam Neeson beat the shit out of all these Europeans for nine hours.