TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When he learned from his dad about a neighbor's child who despite mental handicaps displayed savant behavior, University of Alabama graduate Winston Groom already was a successful journalist and novelist, but he didn't envision such a story ever becoming a pop-culture phenomenon.
Groom didn't foresee a best-selling novel that would become a movie that, 20 years after release, still plays almost continually on TV, somewhere in the world.
And he didn't foresee a movie breaking box office records, winning six Oscars and adding indelible characters and catchphrases to popular culture, spinning off a restaurant chain and inspiring adaptations around the world. That same movie he didn't see coming is inspiring a Japanese musical version even now and a possible Bollywood adaptation in the near future.
Groom just knew he had to shelve the other project he'd begun and start writing about this big galoot he'd imagined — a man with an IQ of 70 who nonetheless showed sparks of brilliance, romping through a bizarrely eventful life.
The satirical novel "Forrest Gump" — a variation on the "wise innocent" archetype, a la Huck Finn, journeying through the heyday of Paul W. "Bear" Bryant, rocketing thrills of the space race, horrors of the war in Vietnam and more — was written in an inspired six-week burst.
It starts somewhat simply, with Gump recounting problems of being treated poorly because he's "a idiot," but segues to glory days, including becoming a star Crimson Tide running back, then rolls upward to stranger, more outlandish things.
"It's a farce, and that's hard to do. The French do it well, but we don't," said Groom, in a phone interview from his Point Clear home. "If I could convince, persuasively, a reader that Coach Paul Bryant would take an idiot and put him on the football team, they'd believe anything.
"Once you hook your reader, they'll go for the rest. And that's, I think, where I hooked 'em."
After the novel hit bestseller lists, Hollywood knocked with green, as in greenbacks, fists. Groom wrote drafts of a script, but nothing seemed to happen for years, except talk, and checks that came every six months, keeping the option alive.
"I mean, every once in a while, I'd get a call: Somebody's excited, some actor or director is attached to it," he said. "I met with some of 'em; a strange and disparate group."
Names such as Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino were tossed about, but Groom mostly stayed apart from the process, only hearing about the project's move from Warner Bros. to Paramount from a friend, while dining at Elaine's in New York. That source also shared this news: Tom Hanks landed the lead.
"Only thing I knew about (Hanks) was he'd played some kind of transvestite in a TV series," Groom said, laughing, referring to the 1980s sitcom "Bosom Buddies," in which two single men pretend to be women to live in an affordable apartment. Groom was invited to the film's sets — nowhere in Alabama, though much of the action is ostensibly here — but politely declined.
"This wasn't my first rodeo: I've had other movies made of my books (including 'As Summers Die,' based on his 1980 novel). It's boring as hell, just the same people doing the same thing over and over again.
"Besides, it makes them nervous to have the writer around, because they know they should be ashamed of themselves."
Groom underlines that his much-discussed "rivalry" with filmmakers was highly overblown, though he enjoys joking about it. The movie did make vast changes from his novel, but as Groom sanguinely points out, the novel still stands on the shelf. And he ultimately did well financially from the film and from rights to his sequel "Gump & Co."
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