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Debate over which films are Christmas movies continues to 'Die Hard'

Screenwriter Steven de Souza continues to defend "Die Hard," but many disagree that movies like the thriller, "Gremlins" and "Trading Places" fit the bill.
Bruce Willis In 'Die Hard'
The debate over what constitutes a Christmas movie often parallels the larger cultural discussion over the true meaning of the holiday.Photo illustration by NBC News; 20th Century-Fox

It's December, and that means it's time for the annual debate among movie lovers over whether films such as "Die Hard" and "Gremlins" deserve to be classified as Christmas movies.

"Die Hard" screenwriter Steven de Souza thinks there shouldn't be any doubt: He co-wrote a script chock full of Christmas jokes and references, down to the "Season's Greetings" gift tape that Bruce Willis' heroic cop, John McClain, uses to hide his gun on his back in the climax.

"I do get offended, because what is your benchmark?" de Souza said of the debate. "Is it because 'Die Hard' came out in July? Well, 'Miracle on 34th Street' came out in the summer, too."

He also pointed out that the entirety of the bad guys' siege of Nakatomi Plaza unfurls between Christmas Eve and the dawn of Christmas Day. That means far more of the movie takes place during the holiday than the supposed gold-standard of the genre, 1954's "White Christmas."

Those arguments clearly aren't convincing everyone: Only one-quarter of Americans consider the 1988 thriller a Christmas movie, according to a Morning Consult/Hollywood Reporter survey released earlier this month, while 62 percent have a more Grinch-like view of its inclusion on any holiday lists.

"Die Hard" remains a popular holiday staple on cable television and in home entertainment at this time of year. A study by StreamingObserver found that "Die Hard" was the most watched movie in four states: Washington, Missouri, Wisconsin and Virginia.

Paying a visit to the set, de Souza noticed the tinsel “Merry Christmas” banners, the Santa hats, the holiday cards on employees' desks, and the giant Christmas tree in the lobby — which would be rigged to collapse when an explosion blows through the windows.

"While we were shooting the movie, producer Joel Silver predicted it would play perennially on television during Christmas," recalled de Souza, who co-wrote the script with Jeb Stuart, based on a novel by Roderick Thorp.

"Seeing all the Christmas decorations, it hit me how he was probably right," de Souza said.

GREMLINS, Zach Galligan, Gizmo, 1984, (c)Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection
Zach Galligan with "Gizmo" in the 1984 "Gremlins."Warner Bros via Everett Collection

Other controversial inclusions in the Christmas film genre also dominated the StreamingObserver map.

"Gremlins," a 1984 creature feature in which the titular monsters terrorize a snowy town in the middle of the holidays, dominated in seven states, including Texas. "Batman Returns" (1992), in which the Penguin's nefarious crime spree unfolds during Christmas, was the top watched in Florida and California. "Trading Places" (1983), despite all its profanity and sex and drug references, finished as the top-watched Christmas movies in two states.

Movie historian Leonard Maltin considers himself a traditionalist when it comes to Christmas movies, and has a much simpler criteria. And it's one that keeps both "Die Hard" and "Gremlins" off his list.

"Does it evoke the spirit of Christmas?" asked Maltin, host of the podcast "Maltin on Movies." "It doesn't mean that it’s just set during Christmas. 'Die Hard' is a terrific thriller set at Christmas time, and there’s no question that Christmastime is an ingredient. They weren’t foolish, they made it purposely and played off of it.

"But it's more of 'It’s a Wonderful Survival' than a 'It's a Wonderful Life.'"

The debate over what constitutes a Christmas movie often parallels the larger cultural discussion over the true meaning of the holiday. Religious critics often deride a secularization of the holiday that's become as associated with Santa Claus and gifts as it has with the birth of Jesus.

And that extends to movies, said Bob Waliszewski, director of Focus on the Family's Plugged In website, which reviews movies and their suitability for Christian audiences.

On Xmas Day
Actors John Payne, Maureen O'Hara, Edmund Gwenn, dressed as Santa Claus, and a young Natalie Wood in "Miracle on 34th Street."Hulton Archive / Getty Images

He has a simple three-point test for a Christmas movie designation: Is Christmas a significant part of the story? Is there something about the real, religious meaning of the holiday in the film? And at the very least, is the picture family friendly?

"Die Hard" fails that test quicker than you can say, "Yippee-ki-yay, mother—"

"I prefer, as a person of faith, to have Christmas movies that tell the real meaning for Christmas at least in part or allude to it," Waliszewski said. "To think that 'Die Hard' or 'Gremlins' is on the list just because there’s a Christmas tree in the background, it makes me roll my eyes."

Though references to a "Die Hard" debate go back at least 11 years, de Souza didn't get drawn into the controversy until 2017, when CNN correspondent Jake Tapper tagged him in a tweet on the subject. That inspired the writer to produce a chart comparing "Die Hard's" holiday film qualifications against those of the Bing Crosby classic, "White Christmas."

'Diehard' screenwriter Steven de Souza's Christmas movie checklist

"Die Hard" "White Christmas"
Takes place during Christmas holiday Entirely First and final scenes only
Setting is a Christmas party Entirely Final scene only
Number of Christmas songs Three ("Let it Snow," "Winter Wonderland," "Christmas in Hollis") Two ("White Christmas," "Snow")
Party venue threatened By terrorists By foreclosure
Broadcaster with hidden agenda Dick Thornburg Johnny Grant
German ringleader Hans Gruber Adolf Hitler
Government incompetence FBI overreacts Pentagon fires Gen. Waverly
Body count 23 Tens of thousands (Battle of the Bulge)
"Gift of the Magi"-like selfless sacrifice Running barefoot over broken glass Danny Kaye upgrades Vera Ellen's train ticket

For example, "Die Hard" boasts three Christmas songs on its soundtrack, while "White Christmas" has just two, and the holiday standard "Snow" may not even count.

All those gripes about the violence in "Die Hard" running counter to the holiday spirit, de Souza's chart compares the body count of 23 dead in his movie to the tens of thousands of people killed during the Battle of the Bulge, which opens the 1954 musical.

"Anyone who argues that 'Die Hard' is not a Christmas movie, must also acknowledge that 'White Christmas' isn't either by the same arguments," de Souza said.