Alexandra Jacobs
May 10, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Despite miserably dire subject matter — insanity, murder, and demonic possession, for starters — the future looks pretty bright for Random House’s Dark Debts, a murky thriller that hits bookstores in August. Paramount has already bought the film rights for $800,000, and name-brand producer David Brown (Jaws, Driving Miss Daisy, A Few Good Men) is on board. Sure, it’s a first novel, but it’s written by Karen Hall, whose TV-writing credentials include Emmy nominations for M*A*S*H, Hill Street Blues, and Moonlighting, and who took care to consult demonologists and Jesuits before getting to work. Even the book’s name — taken from a poem by infamous killer Gary Gilmore — has that oomphy, monosyllabic punch that screams blockbuster movie.

And the leading roles? There’s a highly desirable priest-cum-exorcist (think Richard Gere, Harrison Ford, or Tom Hanks in ”serious actor” mode), a wispy-haired, ethereal New Yorker editor with whom he begins an affair (think Andie MacDowell), a feisty Southern newspaper reporter (think Holly Hunter or Jodie Foster), and a craggy, sensitive lost soul (think George Clooney, Nick Nolte, or Ford again). At least, that’s how Hall, currently at work drafting the screenplay on her Georgia chicken farm, is thinking. The producer declines to comment on possible candidates just yet. ”I’ve made a practice of not casting anything before I see the script, because it’s just dreaming,” says Brown. ”But in terms of who will consider the project, the sky’s the limit.”

Let’s hope that applies to the budget as well. If the author gets even three of her favored picks, the actors’ salaries alone could reach $50 million — dark debts, indeed. And how about the challenge of casting Jesus, who appears fleetingly, but pivotally (as he has a way of doing), dressed down in a flannel shirt? ”It’s got to be Brad Pitt,” Hall says. ”There are only 11 lines for Jesus, but they’re good lines.” Brad Pitt as Jesus? Tom Hanks as an exorcist? Get the hell out of here.

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