So have you ever read a book and thought it would make a perfect movie? I have. I’ve probably read more than one, but the one that comes to mind, that screamed “screenplay” from page one is a novel called 8.4 by Peter Hernon. Released in 1999, while everyone was focused on the Y2K bug, this novel tells the story of a devastating series of earthquakes in the New Madrid Seismic Zone in Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas.
That’s the fault system that produced the largest series of quakes ever recorded in the Continental US in the winter of 1811-12. On one hand, the book seems like it’s tailored to the disaster movie genre that is a guilty pleasure of mine. You have all the typical characters of the genre. There’s the seismologist who happens to be in the right (?) place at the right time complete with his emotional baggage from losing his love (another seismologist ) in a quake they were studying. There’s the young female seismologist carrying data bequeathed to her by a dying geologist that predicts cataclysm on a national scale. The scientific data in question leans heavily on the predictive models of controversial geologist Jim Berklund. While I understand why Berklund runs afoul of mainstream geologists by trying to predict quakes, his basic premise that tidal forces can have an impact on earthquakes seems reasonable enough to me. Naturally, as a paleoseismologist, she has just the skill set needed to spur the emergency management officials to action. Needless to say, she also helps our protagonist shed that emotional baggage he’s been carrying all these years. There’s the usual assortment of locals. In this case, they’re hard-working midwestern folk who may not know the science, but do know that something is terribly wrong. Then there are the suits and the politicians who get in the way because, you know, an earthquake that could rip the guts out of the midwest is not enough of an antagonist.
All that being said, this assortment of characters makes sense, and Hernon weaves them into the story well. Even the antagonists make sense, though their portrayal comes down a little on the cynical side. These are factors that make it a story I’ve returned to several times when I’ve needed an easy read. But the thing that has always stood out for me has been the scale and pacing of the story. From the first page, I can clearly see the movie in my mind. The science is presented in a way that is accessible. The plot successfully balances the human stories with the scale of the catastrophe by keeping the cast of characters relatively small. The coincidences necessary to weave the various threads of the story into a cohesive third act are plausible and believable.
It would be a great movie, a fun movie. A while ago, I even tried looking online to see if I could find any evidence of the movie rights being sold. I’m not an expert on such things, so I can reasonably hope that what my findings suggest is nothing more than coincidence. I so hope for a coincidence, because the horror of what I found is too hideous to contemplate.
I couldn’t find much, and I can’t duplicate the results, so I’m a bit more hopeful, but in searching for movies connections for 8.4, the hideousness of 10.5 reared its head. You remember 10.5, don’t you? That horrific 2004 NBC mini-series about a series of increasingly powerful earthquakes that work their way from Seattle to L.A., follow train tracks, and force a successful evacuation of Southern California (yeah, like that would happen in anything close to an orderly manner) before making So.Cal. into an island. Aside from bad special effects, this production couldn’t even get very simple facts right. You know, like the fact that Ellensburg, WA is about a hundred miles east of Seattle…on the other side of the Cascade Mountains, or that TV stations west of the Mississippi have call letters starting with K, not W? I can forgive budget limitations that lead to cheesy special effects. I mean really, it’s not like we every production can have Roland Emmerich’s budget. But I have a harder time forgiving simple laziness that flat-out insults the intelligence of the viewer.
That’s why I hope that 10.5 was not born of the movie rights to 8.4. It would be such a waste of a fun, entertaining book.