I never wanted to write this essay. This debate has come up every year recently, and I hate it, because it is just a cacophony of wrongness that drives me bananas. I wasn’t going to weigh in on it officially, but I realized it would be efficient to have all my reasoning compiled in a single location, so that in the future I can save time by just pointing people to this article and thereby not have to discuss it any further. Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?
No, it is not.
Let’s start by acknowledging that there are two ways to become a Christmas movie—and Die Hard does probably qualify under one of them. The two ways use different, non-overlapping evidence. That first way is by tradition and association.
Anything can become a Christmas movie if it’s by tradition. Predator could be a Christmas movie if it became a tradition to watch it during the season. It is arguable that enough people have made it a holiday tradition to watch the movie this time of year that Die Hard is a Christmas movie by this method. Evidence such as seeing the DVD on sale at Target in the “Xmas movies” section, or the movie playing during a TNT “Christmas movie marathon,” would fall here, because becoming a movie this way says nothing about the actual movie itself, only about people’s perceptions of it. Many people may associate Die Hard with Christmas, but that does not make it a Christmas movie.
If Predator came to be popularly associated with Christmas, it would also be sold by Target and played by TNT in the same way, because companies are just looking to market to people, ride trends, and make as much money as possible. If companies hear a movie is being associated with a holiday by any meaningful metric, they will sell it next to that holiday. It says nothing about the movie itself.
This brings up the inherent unfairness of the association factor, which is that just by engaging in this conversation, opponents of the Die Hard theory—like me—reinforce the connection because we keep putting “Die Hard” and “Christmas” next to each other in sentences. The more I argue about this, the longer this argument goes on, the more I lose because it just builds the status of the other side.
I reject this method of being a Christmas movie, however, because this isn’t what the “yeses” truly mean when they say Die Hard is a Christmas movie. The true controversy is over the second way to be a Christmas film: its content.
Only the content of the film actually matters in this discussion; it is the only truly relevant evidence. In saying that, I will take a digression to dispense with another form of evidence: artist intent. I subscribe, more or less, to the “death of the author” theory: An artist’s intention when making a work of art can be taken as informative, but it is not dispositive. Once a piece is out in the world, it stands on its own.
Even taking the artist’s intent into account, what do we have? Much has been made of the fact that the writer of Die Hard, Steven E. de Souza, has gone on record to say he believes it is a Christmas movie. The thing about that is though: he’s just the writer. Movies are collaborative projects that require the input of dozens, if not hundreds, of people to come to life, and some input matters more than others. Within that hierarchy, the writer ranks very low. The joke is that the blonde goes to Hollywood and sleeps with the writer. It’s also a truism that film is fundamentally a director’s medium (whereas theater best showcases actors and television writers). All which is to say, of all the possible people to have on your side in this debate, you come at me backed up by the writer?*
Ultimately, of course, it wouldn’t matter if the writer, director, stars, and craft services all released a public statement formally declaring Die Hard a Christmas film because the intent of the artist is not dispositive; it is merely informative. The only conclusive evidence lies within the four corners of the work of art. All that matters is the movie itself.
Die Hard is an action movie, with Christmas elements sprinkled in. None of these Christmas elements are essential to the film. Every one of them could be removed, or replaced, and the movie would still work. Not only would it still work, but it would also be nearly unchanged.
Compare Die Hard to an actual Christmas movie: The Santa Clause. In The Santa Clause, the entire film, nearly every scene, relies on Christmas or something Christmas-related as a premise. In Die Hard, what is there? A handful of jokes. A couple of songs. The biggest element is the fact that the attack takes place during an office Christmas party, but this could be replaced with anything. It could be a New Year’s party, a Super Bowl party, a party celebrating a merger, the Christmas part is irrelevant. It’s a setting; not a genre.
Die Hard could take place during the company’s non-denominational office holiday party. It doesn’t have to be Christmas; it would still work fine. But apply that same logic to Elf, and the movie doesn’t work. That’s why Elf is a Christmas movie, and Die Hard isn’t.
Die Hard is not a Christmas movie because it’s not about Christmas; it just takes place during it. It’s more like The Karate Kid. There is a scene in The Karate Kid that takes place over Halloween. Would you call The Karate Kid a Halloween movie?**
Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine an alien came to Earth and said, “teach me what a Christmas movie is.” Would you show the alien Die Hard? After seeing only Die Hard, would the alien be able to turn around and produce a Christmas movie? If you told the alien all the hallmarks of a Christmas movie and then showed it Die Hard, would the alien be confused?
One weak-as-hell argument I’ve heard is that Die Hard has “Christmas themes.” Namely, over the course of the film, John McClane rekindles his relationship with his estranged wife, Holly. This isn’t a Christmas theme. It’s an action movie theme. Action and adventure movies constantly feature the reunion of estranged people and families. It’s a trope. Think of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Think of Terminator 2. Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. The River Wild. The Incredibles, Indiana Jones and The Crystal Skull, True Lies. And saving a relationship is just a mild spin on forming a relationship, which adds a whole new crop of action movies to list, not least of which being “Die Hard on a bus,” Speed. Even in the Die Hard series, John McClane reunites with every other estranged member of his family, in sequels that don’t take place on Christmas.
When all is said and done, it comes down to an analogy. Imagine the movie is a Jenga tower. If you pull out all the Christmas stuff, does it remain standing? Take all the Christmas out of Miracle on 34th Street and it would topple. Pull the Christmas from Jingle All The Way, it falls. If you take the Christmas out of Die Hard, it would remain standing. The reason is because it is not a Christmas movie. It’s an action movie with some Christmas seasoning. The Christmas stuff, it’s just gravy. The action is the meal.
Die Hard is an action movie with some Christmas tinsel on it. But a little bit of tinsel does not make you a Christmas tree.
Get over it.
*In fact, de Souza has said he did not think of Die Hard as a Christmas movie until he first saw the completed set. So really, what you’re saying in this instance is that maybe the set designer thinks it’s a Christmas movie.
In further fact, what do we even mean when we call him the “writer” at all? Did he come up with the idea for this movie all on his own, and write the whole thing from scratch, purely from his own imagination? Nope. Die Hard is an adaptation of a book, Nothing Lasts Forever, by Roderick Thorpe. So sure, writing an adapted screenplay is a thing, but let’s hang back on anointing any one guy’s opinion as the be all and end all of what the movie’s true intentions are. And speaking of the book, the protagonist of that story also attends a Christmas party, but nobody has ever been tempted to call it a “Christmas book.” It’s an action thriller. Whoops.
**Speaking of timing and when things take place: I didn’t include this argument in the main body of the piece because it’s a little wonky and that detracts from the momentum of the case, but that’s what God created footnotes for.
Die Hard opened in theaters in the dead of summer, in July. Is that when Christmas movies come out? If it was a Christmas movie, you’d think it would premiere closer to… Christmas?
Now, the reason I omitted this eviscerating evidence is because dummy Die Hard Christmas kooks have a go-to rebuttal: the archetypal Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street, also opened during the summer, in May. This would seem like a devastating retort, were it not missing a key detail: Die Hard was released in 1988, and Miracle on 34th Street was released in 1947. The technology, economics, and strategies behind promoting and releasing movies completely changed in that 41-year span.
Per film historian Robert Osborne: “In those days, we didn’t have the Internet. We didn’t have television to promote a movie. We didn’t have anything… So what usually happened is in the summer, if they had a big picture, like a Christmas movie, it would open in New York in the non-holiday season. So that by the time Christmas came around, five months later, then it had played off in the big cities, but it was then playing in all the small towns across America [becoming] a Christmas release then.”
The advertising for Miracle doesn’t even mention anything about Christmas; its trailer famously avoids showing any footage of the actual movie, and its poster avoids any hint of the subject, too. So while this might seem like a total “Gotcha,” the circumstances of film history make it an exception that proves the rule. In modern times, like the late 80s, Christmas movies are usually released during the holiday season.