As we head toward celebrating the day of Jesus Christ’s birth, let us take a few moments to acknowledge the screen story of his sibling that might have been. The Second Greatest Story Ever Told, a 1991 novel in which 18-year-old Ilona Ann Coggswater reveals herself to be God’s other child, became an object of interest to several major names in the years following its publication, but this holy satire wound up spending years in development hell.
“All these actresses have attached themselves to this book; they love it,” says author Gorman Bechard. “But the people who have the money have always been afraid to pull the trigger, I think because they’re afraid of insulting the religious right.”
Bechard, whose name may be best known to cult-horror fans for low-budget genre fare like Psychos in Love (recently resurrected on Blu-ray by Vinegar Syndrome), had become frustrated with the creative interference one finds even on the indie horror scene, and decided to put down on paper a story he’d had in mind for a few years. “In a nutshell,” Bechard explains Second Greatest Story, “God sends his daughter to save the world, and she’s your typical teenage girl: She drinks, she does drugs, she has sex, but she just happens to be Jesus’ kid sister, so she can do whatever she wants. But she really is here to say, ‘You’ve got to start taking care of the planet.’ Her whole message is, she cans the Ten Commandments and says to just go with one, which is ‘Be kind.’ ”
Even with this positive message, the book’s irreverent treatment of religious themes would seem to beckon controversy—and Bechard reveals that just such a scandal helped spur him to tackle it back in 1988. “I turned on CNN, back when it really was all news, and all these people were crying. I was like, ‘What happened? Who died?’ I thought something horrible had happened. But it was people protesting The Last Temptation of Christ, and that sort of pushed me to write the book.”
The Second Greatest Story Ever Told was published on Halloween ’91 by Citadel Press, but even before then, Bechard and his agent had sold the rights to producer Arnold Kopelson, who had recently won a Best Picture Oscar for Platoon. Very quickly, Winona Ryder, then enjoying It Girl status via Beetlejuice and Heathers, expressed interest in starring in the film version. “She was actually the person I’d had in mind as I was writing the character, so it was perfect,” Bechard says. “It was surreal, because my editor, Dan Levy, called me up and said, ‘I hope you don’t mind, but Winona Ryder’s people just asked for your home phone number.’ So she called me, and we talked a little about the book, but mainly we had this weird number of conversations about the band The Replacements. I even remember that my future wife and I were at a Replacements show at the Beacon Theater in New York in ’91, and we had better seats than Winona, which really made my wife happy! Anyway, Winona was the perfect person for it, and in fact, when she was on the cover of the ‘Hot’ issue of Rolling Stone in ’91, she said that her next role was going to be a female Jesus.
“Well, Arnold Kopelson decided that he didn’t want Winona Ryder to play this part,” Bechard sighs. “For my green-eyed, 18-year-old daughter of God, he was going to cast Whoopi Goldberg. Thankfully, that never happened, and the option lapsed. When it was next picked up, I don’t remember what company it was, but they had Ashley Judd, who was fresh off Ruby in Paradise. That ended up falling through, and I’m kind of vague on this, but I believe there was interest from Sandra Bullock’s company; she was involved with another project of mine, and again, both of those fell through.”
The odyssey of Second Greatest Story, in fact, would stretch for more than a decade past the book’s publication date. Judd came back on board as director, then dropped out again; it was subsequently optioned by New York-based production company The Shooting Gallery, hot off the Oscar-winning success of Sling Blade. Nearly three years later, frustrated by the wait and the company’s desire to replace him as scriptwriter, Bechard reclaimed the rights. At one point, Bechard recalls, “Someone in Hollywood wanted to make it with an $80-million budget, and it was going to be the first starring role for Britney Spears. I fired my manager because of that and took the book off the market.”
He decided to seek out the money to make the movie himself, and was able to raise $2 million, attaching another on-the-rise actress along the way. “We found this young woman named Patricia Mara, who came in cold on a casting call. I thought there was just something about her. Unfortunately, when we got the contracts from the money people, everything we had initially agreed to was turned around. All of a sudden, they had taken complete control, and that was not part of the original deal, so we told them to go fuck themselves. They had never made a movie before, and I wasn’t letting a bunch of investment bankers tell me how to do it. I ended up giving this young woman a small part in my next independent film, Friends (With Benefits), but by that point she had changed her name to Rooney Mara.” The future Girl With the Dragon Tattoo star does appear on the cover of BookSurge Publishing’s 2008 paperback edition of Second Greatest Story.
In recent years, as Bechard has largely busied himself with both documentaries (including Color Me Obsessed, about The Replacements, and Who Is Lydia Loveless?), Second Greatest Story has been on his back burner. However, he says that he has lately been receiving interest in translating the novel to a series for one of the alternative networks, and believes its story and message still have meaning. “The kindness thing and the idea of taking care of the planet make it very relevant,” he says. “And the funny thing is, Ilona ends up living in the penthouse of Trump Tower, and when Trump tries to tell her what her rent will be, she’s like, ‘No, you’re giving it to me for free, and I’m going to donate that money to the charity of my choice.’ To me, the book is probably even more timely today than it was back then.”