Theme; The DieHard Essential by Craig Sabin

Theme is the most overlooked and misunderstood aspect of screenwriting. Even development executives and directors often fail to grasp its significance.

So why is it so important?

One need go no further than the “DieHard” franchise.

Theme, for our purposes, can best be defined as the question a movie poses and often answers as it follows the main character’s arc. In other words, John McClane’s struggle through the upper floors of the Nakatomi building is meant to illustrate a lesson or world view. This is the Theme, and it frequently becomes apparent to the audience through the Hero’s behavior at the beginning of the movie, and his transformation at the end.   

Often, development executives and script doctors will break down “DieHard” (the original movie) in order to explain its success. They claim that “DieHard” is essentially about a NYC cop who learns to become a better and more understanding husband.

They’re wrong.

Their false conclusion is understandable. These people are intelligent and their arguments well-reasoned. They point to the “All is Lost” moment, where John McClane, bleeding in the men’s room, (there’s a phrase I never tire of!) tearfully asks ally Officer Powell over the radio to tell his wife he was sorry for being such a jerk, should he not survive.

But this is merely dialogue, with ample subtext to suggest that this apology is a Hail Mary pass, like a deathbed confession. The acid test must be concept and story. If the Theme does not resonate throughout the script, it is not the Theme.

Think about it. John McClane comes to L.A. to reconcile with his wife. He is the penitent. This suggests that he’s already prepared, from page one, to be a better and more yielding husband. If he weren’t already sorry for losing her, he wouldn’t be in L.A. In short, if the Theme is revealed by the Hero’s transformation, John McClane has transformed before the movie ever starts.

Think about it. How successful would John McClane have been if he had yielded to the terrorists, or been more understanding of their situation? The story requires John McClain to be a kick-ass cop, not a kinder, gentler man. And McClane does not disappoint, shooting, strangling and in general blowing things up. Even at the end, when his wife is held at gunpoint, and he is told to lay down his weapon—even then, he remains a cop, and fires a risky round at Hans, sending terrorist—and wife—out the window. John McClane’s only real transformation in DieHard is that he goes from being unappreciated to being super appreciated.

So, what is the Theme of “DieHard”, if it’s not “How to be a better husband?”

John McClane represents real life, a tough, street-wise veteran cop. (He’s even from New York City, and back in the ‘80s, that meant something!) But McClane has a problem. His wife, Holly, has taken their children and moved to Los Angeles—the Bullshit capital of the world. Abandoning her (real) marriage, taking a job at a gaudy, self-important hi-rise with an ornate lobby, working for a Japanese company (for our younger readers, just substitute “Chinese” for “Japanese” and you’ll get a sense of the suspicion and fear we held towards the Japanese back then,) hanging out with bearded yuppies, making a dishonest (we assume) paycheck and wearing the gold bauble on her wrist. The police are more concerned with how they look for the TV cameras than they are about the hostages. Even the terrorists are bullshit, committing their crimes for financial reasons instead of political ones.

Only John McClane is for real, sitting uncomfortably in the back of the bullshit limo they sent for him. John McClane cuts through the bullshit, taking out the hostages, revealing his value to Holly, and in the process, blowing up the building that was such a lofty example of ‘80s excess. Holly must give up the gold watch, or she must die. In the end, she is the one who transforms, readopting her married name and becoming “real” once more. McClane’s transformation is more subtle. He goes from being the penitent husband to becoming the Hero he should have always been to her.

No, the true Theme of DieHard is “Real Life vs. Bullshit”.  

So, if Theme is so wily, and so easily misunderstood, why even bother with it?

Take a look at “DieHard 2; Die Harder”.

In the “DieHard” sequel, another group of paramilitary terrorists take over the planes in the air and hold them hostage. One of the passengers is Holly McClane. It is a virtual repeat of “DieHard”, with the exception of location, Dulles Airport in Washington D.C.

But the sequel, and all subsequent movies in the franchise, lacks the Thematic coherence that made the first one such a righteous display of kick-assitude. In “DieHard 2”, there is no bullshit, and McClane is no more real than anyone else in the movie. (In fact, there isn’t even the false Theme of “I need to be a better husband.”) As a result, the movie feels like an empty exercise in pyrotechnics. The problem only worsened with later films in the franchise.

Tent pole movies are the future of Hollywood. If you find yourself writing on a franchise, know this—Theme is your friend. Become an expert on the Theme of your movie, so that your franchise will live long after you, and your descendants will be able to afford gold watches of their own.

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