(JTA) — Surely the Torah’s redactors never imagined that their Dinah — voiceless daughter of Jacob and Leah, rape victim avenged by her brothers — would one day be portrayed on the small screen as a lusty young midwife’s apprentice who takes her romantic fate into her own hands.
Anita Diamant’s 1997 novel “The Red Tent” took the shards of Dinah’s story, told in a fairly short chapter of Genesis, and recast them as a layered tale of sisterhood, friendship and love. The book sold 3 million copies and has been translated into more than two dozen languages. Now it’s been adapted into a Lifetime miniseries.
The two-part series, to be broadcast Dec. 7-8, stars the Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson as Dinah, Minnie Driver as Leah and Morena Baccarin (Jessica Brody from “Homeland”) as Rachel. The Scottish actor Iain Glen (“Sir Richard Carlisle on “Downton Abbey”) plays Jacob, and the Israeli actress Hiam Abbas bears a setting-appropriate accent in her portrayal of Queen Re-Nefer.
Lifetime’s vehicle draws heavily from Diamant’s wildly successful novel, which would ultimately help pioneer a new literary genre based on Bible stories.
The novel — named for the tent in which the book’s characters take refuge when they menstruate or after giving birth —“legitimized the kind of imaginative examination of women’s narratives that women had been writing and circulating [on a] small scale since the early 1970s,” said Susan Weidman Schneider, editor in chief of the feminist Jewish magazine Lilith.
And Carolyn Starman Hessel, the director of the Jewish Book Council, said that Diamant “opened the door” for other writers of biblical fiction. Although “The Red Tent” may not have been the very first historical novel written in the voice of a biblical woman, “this was the first one that made national headlines, that made best seller lists,” said Starman Hessel.
Before hitting on the story of “The Red Tent,” and after writing four non-fiction books, Diamant, then working as a journalist, decided to try her hand at fiction. Inspired by what she was learning about midrash, or stories that flesh out and analyze biblical narratives, she turned to the story of Rachel and Leah, but didn’t find much to work with and kept reading.
“Then I got to Dinah and it doesn’t say anything, but the prince doesn’t act like a rapist,” since he agrees to be circumcised in order to marry her. “I sort of meandered into it, but that was a great story,” said Diamant, a founder of Boston’s non-denominational mikvah, Mayyim Hayyim.
When “The Red Tent” at first garnered few reviews and didn’t sell well, Diamant hit the book club and synagogue circuit, turning it into a New York Times bestseller.
“From the response I get from readers, the book hit a whole lot of chords,” the author told JTA, noting that she continues to hear from readers as varied as high school students and midwives — including one who set Diamant’s text to music and sings it to laboring clients.
In the 17 years since “The Red Tent” was published, many other novels based on biblical characters have hit the market. Most of them, such as Jill Eileen Smith’s series “The Wives of the Patriarchs” and “The Wives of King David,” are by Christian authors and geared toward Christian audiences. Notable exceptions include Maggie Anton’s Talmud-inspired “Rashi’s Daughters” trilogy and “Rav Hisda’s Daughter” books — the second was recently published.
“I knew ‘Rashi’s Daughters’ would appeal to that same niche audience and because of [Diamant’s] example, I knew where to find them and how to reach them,” Anton said in an interview with JTA.
Diamant herself, however, hasn’t been tempted to delve back into the Bible for its fiction plot potential since “The Red Tent.”
Once “it came out and became popular, I couldn’t think another way to do it that would be as fresh,” she said.
But the Lifetime series indeed freshens the story, at times to the point of being overripe, while taking ample liberties with Diamant’s text, much as Diamant did with the Bible’s. For example, at the end of the miniseries Dinah returns with Joseph to reconcile with their dying father, Jacob, a scene for which there is no basis in either the novel or the Bible. And while “The Red Tent” novel speaks of the calloused hands of Dinah and Leah, in the Lifetime movie they and Rachel are all pale English roses speaking with British accents.
The miniseries provides Lifetime’s heavily female audience with gauzy love scenes that verge on soft porn. In one scene, light plays across the chiseled abs of a virile young Jacob as he beds his surprise-wife Leah on their wedding night. Instead of Shechem taking Dinah “by force,” as Genesis 34 recounts, in the miniseries Dinah and the Shechem character (Lifetime calls him Shalem) meet — glimpsing one another through sheer fabrics hanging in the marketplace — flirt and fall in passionate love.
Diamant, whose fifth and latest novel, “The Boston Girl,” is to be published Dec. 9, declines to say much about how she feels about the Lifetime adaptation of her book, in which she had no role after selling the rights to it. Her novel has just been reissued with the miniseries poster as its cover.
“I was worried [the main characters] would be really blonde, and at least they weren’t,” Diamant said with a laugh.