Bunk, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, but when it comes to biblical adaptations, the best policy always is, buyer beware.
Tonight (Dec. 7), at 9 p.m. ET, Lifetime premieres a two-part adaptation, concluding Monday, of Boston-based Jewish writer Anita Diamant’s 1997 novel, “The Red Tent,” very loosely based on the story of Dinah, from Genesis 34.
Like many Old Testament stories, it’s big on action and light on details. In short, Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, goes to visit some Canaanite women. While there, a local prince, Schechem, seizes her and has sex with her. But he also falls in love with her and tries to win her affections, even asking his father to get her for him as a wife.
Jacob isn’t happy about what happened to Dinah, and her brothers, even less so. Upon hearing of the wedding notion, they decide instead to trick the men of the region into circumcising themselves as a condition of the intermarriage. After the circumcisions, the enraged brothers descend on the area, kill all the men and loot everything of value (including the women and children).
Diamant, and the miniseries adapted from her book, tells the story from the women’s point of view, centered on a sumptuous red tent where they go during their monthly periods, when they are unclean.
Obviously, fleshing out the bare bones of these tales always requires a certain level of invention and elaboration, but Diamant’s modern-feminist take, including choosing to make the women secret pagan goddess-worshipers, knocks it out of Biblical adaptation into pure fiction.
Understandably, that bothered some folks.
A SparkNotes review of the book said, “‘Some critics, mainly devout Jewish and Christian scholars, believe Diamant essentially blasphemes against the Bible in her version of Dinah’s life, changing basic elements of the stories of Jacob and his wives and presenting Leah and Rachel as polytheistic — a representation that directly contradicts the Judeo-Christian belief that Leah and Rachel were the matriarchal founders of the Jewish people and pioneers of monotheism.”
(Since Leah and Rachel exist only in the sacred Scriptures of “Judeo-Christian belief,” that might be why they’re there at all, but I digress.)
But the review also adds, “Less devoutly religious leaders have sometimes characterized ‘The Red Tent’ as a midrash, or a story that attempts to fill in gaps in the Bible.”
Diamant doesn’t agree.
A review of the book in Christianity Today quoted Diamant as saying, ‘The Red Tent’ is fiction, not biblical commentary. I feel no need to apologize or justify my choices as a writer. That boundary is a choice. It is not my choice.”
Then writer AnnaLouise Carter (whose bio says she is “part of a multicultural, cross-class church”) adds, “Yet art need not be biblical interpretation to help us look at our lives and faith with fresh eyes. When we allow it to ask difficult questions and imagine unspoken realities, it can lead to possibilities that are frightening, disturbing or uncomfortable — but that can also open us to new ways of seeing that we couldn’t have possibly imagined.”
The New York Daily News review stated, “Dinah’s voiceover narration makes it clear from the beginning that she also represents the other women of her family and her era, in that their lives and work are considered less important than the lives and work of the men around them.
“In that sense, ‘The Red Tent’ is an aggressively feminist story painted on a canvas straight out of ‘The Ten Commandments.'”
Writing in Variety, reviewer Brian Lowry calls “The Red Tent” a “handsome melodrama” and says it, “cleverly redresses the Bible’s male-oriented tilt.”
This is echoed in Kansas City Star, which opens its TV review by saying, “You know a biblical autobiography is fictional — really, really fictional — when it lets a woman speak for herself.”
Interestingly, considering the insistence of some radical feminists that all sex is rape, and the media frenzy over the supposed “rape culture” at colleges and universities, Diamant takes the element of rape out of the story. Instead, Dinah and her prince fall in love, with consensual sex coming later.
So it seems Diamant wants to have her feminist cake, with some Disney-princess icing on top.
Frankly, with a few exceptions (like History Channel’s “The Bible,” which was made by believers who respected the material and its evangelical purpose), modern Biblical interpretations usually leap beyond the story into areas and themes that sometimes directly contradict the intent and essential meaning of the original.
Obviously that’s part and parcel of artistic freedom, but it can also be a thumb-in-the-eye sort of post-adolescent rebellion, a desire to take tradition and remold it into one’s own image, to serve the writer’s own vision and desires.
If you’re fine with that, enter “The Red Tent.”