Earlier this week, Michal Lemberger wrote about turning King David into a villain and Lot’s wife and the other nameless women of the Bible. She is the author of the recently published book After Abel and Other Stories and has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
When I began writing the stories that make up my collection, After Abel and Other Stories, I wasn’t thinking about other fiction writers who had reimagined biblical tales. I had been steeped in biblical scholarship for so many years that my mind was filled with it as I sat down to write. Within months, though, I got word of an upcoming miniseries based on Anita Diamant’s beloved novel, The Red Tent. That was soon followed by advertisements, and then, of course, the movie itself.
I read the novel — about Jacob, his four wives, and in the central role, his daughter, Dinah — when it first came out, but hadn’t revisited it since. The arrival of the film adaptation seemed perfect, almost like a sign that my timing was right — that I was responding to something larger happening in the realm of stories about the Bible. It also gave me a chance to reread the book, to see how the people at the Lifetime Channel had adapted it, and to reflect on why these kinds of stories still speak to us and why they remain important.
Back in 1997, some readers were scandalized by what they saw as the book’s impiety and its frank sexual depictions, but over the years, The Red Tent has lost its shock value. Still, I was surprised by how little about The Red Tent the miniseries left intact and what the filmmakers chose to keep.
Diamant’s book attempted to give more fullness to the experience of women than the Torah affords them. What drew readers by the millions is how she filled in the lives of Rachel, Leah, Dinah, and the other women with whom they lived and died. She gave each woman a distinct personality: Leah became forceful and competent; Rachel is beautiful (as she is in the Torah) but a bit self-involved; and Dinah emerges as a watchful younger child in a large family, a beloved daughter who is nonetheless expected to follow the rules of her mother’s home. Notably, the women practice their older pagan-inspired rites alongside Jacob’s belief in his father’s God. In what is perhaps the most important point made by the novel, these belief systems peacefully coexist.
The problem with the Lifetime version is how the novel’s nuance is flattened.
Dinah is somewhat passive in the novel, which allows her to be the reader’s stand-in, watching everything unfold around her. But in what passes for a strong female character in so many movies, she becomes a brash heroine in the miniseries.
Lifetime’s Rachel remains moony-eyed from start to finish, filling Dinah’s head with decidedly modern notions of romance, especially that tired trope of all-encompassing love at first sight. And, not for nothing, the women’s syncretistic belief system is now set against Jacob’s rigid, even angry, monotheism. All that’s left of Diamant’s original is the title and cast of characters.
The upshot is that we’re given a story we’ve seen so many times before, one in which there is only one plotline for women to follow — that of romantic love. Despite the bloody ending to Dinah’s romance, she is set on the same path as every other boyfriend-seeking heroine of recent rom-coms.
It’s been seventeen years since The Red Tent was published. Diamant’s vision no longer raises eyebrows. It has become naturalized and accepted. It’s too bad that Lifetime scrapped it, because she managed to give the story, its female characters, and family life a sense of complexity that it was missing before, and that has been stripped away again.
Female characters and experience can be reduced in any number of ways: Dinah becomes smugly virtuous and headstrong, which may be hackneyed, but at least has some redeeming value. But in truth, she’s one-dimensional, her stubbornness put to use only to snag the heart of a prince.
The search for romantic love is a universal theme in stories of all sorts — novels, movies, songs. It’s powerful. We do crave love. Experiencing love is rewarding. But women’s lives are so much richer — and sadder, harder, more complicated, or conflicted — than many of the most enduring and popular narratives would have us believe. We needed The Red Tent seventeen years ago. We still need to give women the texture and variety that the stories of their lives deserve.
Michal Lemberger’s nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Slate, Salon, Tablet, and other publications, and her poetry has been published in a number of print and online journals. She holds a BA in English and religion from Barnard College and a MA and PhD in English from UCLA, and she has taught the Bible as literature at UCLA and the American Jewish University. Michal lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughters. Learn more atmichallemberger.com.
Michal Lemberger holds a BA in English and Religion from Barnard College and a MA and PhD in English from UCLA. Her nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Slate, Salon, Tablet, Lilith Magazine, and others; her poetry has been published in a number of print and online journals, including The Bellevue Literary Review and The Rattling Wall.