Hollywood can't get enough of the lawyer turned author with movies due for ''The Runaway Jury,'' ''The Gingerbread Man,'' and ''The Rainmaker''

Despite the disappointing returns of last year’s film version of The Chamber (less than $15 million), enthusiasm for lawyer-turned-author John Grisham hasn’t waned in Hollywood. Though Grisham’s latest best-seller, The Partner, hasn’t yet been offered to producers, three other Grisham projects are being readied to face the juries at the cineplex. Does this mean Hollywood has a short memory? Not exactly: Together, the five Grisham adaptations so far (starting with 1993’s The Firm) have grossed nearly a half-billion dollars domestically. Here’s a case-by-case report on the new plaintiffs:

THE RUNAWAY JURY: Last year Grisham was paid $8 million for the movie rights; now Edward Norton (Primal Fear) is in final negotiations to star as a mysteriously manipulative juror, Nick, who holds the cards in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against a tobacco company. Timing is an issue: With tobacco companies possibly settling with state attorneys general, The Runaway Jury could become a period piece by the time of its likely 1998 release. Director Joel Schumacher (The Client, A Time To Kill) laughs in the face of danger: ”I’m not worried. There are always going to be lawyers who find a way to sue tobacco companies.”

THE GINGERBREAD MAN: Filmed by Robert Altman for release in early fall, Grisham’s first original screenplay stars Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet) as a Southern lawyer who’s hired by a scheming woman (Schindler’s List‘s Embeth Davidtz) to have her elderly father committed. Grisham gave a proposal for the movie to producer Jeremy Tannenbaum about six years ago, when the author was still unknown. ”It was a real page-turner and very visual,” says Tannenbaum. They struck a deal, but the project was delayed by Grisham’s own success. ”The Firm and The Pelican Brief became best-sellers,” says Tannenbaum, ”and it took him a couple of years to deliver the rewrites.”

THE RAINMAKER: Ironically, Norton was passed over for the role of a young law student who sues a major insurance company; the part went to Courage Under Fire‘s Matt Damon. Producers Steven Reuther and Michael Douglas — who paid $6 million for the screen rights — also hired the most unlikely Grisham director to date, Francis Ford Coppola. Set for release in late fall, the film could suffer from following so closely on the heels of The Gingerbread Man. ”I don’t think it’s good to have two Grisham movies sitting right on top of each other,” says Reuther, ”but Gingerbread Man doesn’t have a readership of 2 million or Francis Ford Coppola.” The defense rests.