Pitching the ‘Red Tent’

Celebrated author Anita Diamant speaks about her bestselling book’s adaptation to the small screen and explains why it provokes so many questions.

Mark Strand (photo credit: GRETJE FERGESON)
Mark Strand
(photo credit: GRETJE FERGESON)
NEW YORK – Seventeen years ago when her first book, The Red Tent, was published, Anita Diamant said she began receiving inquiries from all over expressing interest in making this Bible spin-off into a movie, even from people who had no filmmaking experience, she told the audience at the 92nd Street Y. Around a hundred people turned out last Thursday night, because 17 years later, that film is here. The Red Tent will premiere on the Lifetime channel in a two-night mini-series on December 7 and 8, and stars Morena Baccarin as Rachel, Minnie Driver as Leah and Rebecca Ferguson as the protagonist Dinah.
The film, which was shot in Morocco over the summer, is beautiful to behold, and, Diamant said, faithful to “the values of the book.” Despite some clunky scripting and an altered second half, the film still deals with the issues of women’s agency and strength, and focused on the friendships and relationships of the women who lead the story.
“The book honors the work of women’s hands,” she said, telling The Jerusalem Post that, “I don’t think of this as a Jewish movie and never have.” Diamant also clarified that she had nothing to do with the production, either as a scriptwriter or in any other capacity.
Her original goal when she set out to write the story around 20 years ago, Diamant recalled, was to give voice to women in the Bible.
“There are 10,000 personal names in the Bible. Ten percent of those are women, and even fewer of those speak.”
The idea of getting to know one of those women better was appealing, as was exploring mother-daughter relationships and women’s friendships. “Besides,” she joked, “who wouldn’t want four mothers. That’s just wish-fulfillment.”
“I was originally going to do a story about Rachel and Leah,” she told the audience after the dramatic hour-and-a-half premiere, but found that their story soon peters out and becomes the story of Jacob and Joseph. And so she turned to a story that she had always suspected was misinterpreted: the story of Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter.
The book was a hit in 1997 when it came out, becoming a New York Times bestseller and garnering accolades from the Los Angeles Times and Christian Science Monitor. Even today, the book remains hugely popular among book clubs.
What caused such a storm over a book that featured such a little-known biblical character? Well for one, at the time the book was published, Diamant recalled, Jewish women were just starting to study the sacred texts.
“Adult Jewish learning was roaring into existence,” she said. “For women who hadn’t had bat mitzvahs, who felt stupid because they hadn’t been taught this stuff, that’s very empowering – although I hate that world – but it made them feel more legitimate in their opinions and questions.”
That, and the fact that most liberal Jewish women identify as feminist, Diamant said, was what helped the book hit such a chord at the time, but not only with Jews.
“I remember early on someone talked to me about their own work on a ‘Midrash of Mary,’ and feeling the need to find themselves in that [story], to understand who Martha was, and who these characters were, and how important they were,” she said. “And then I think it’s that mother- daughter friendship thing. There’s a lot to talk about, that’s what made it a bestseller was women’s book groups.”
Diamant said she “felt like I had permission” to play with the otherwise sacred text.
“Jews have more freedom with their texts. We have a tradition of imaginative commentary. We can invent what Cain and Abel said to each other. So I didn’t feel as though I was violating anything.”
Christians, obviously, read the Bible differently than Jews read it, but also have a much different relationship to the text.
When the book came out, Diamant said, she was “taken to task” by some groups, particularly Christian groups, for “not staying true to the Bible.” Over some chuckles in the audience, she explained, “They didn’t want to read about these people in the Bible as human beings. These people are icons to them.”
But many other Christians had the exact opposite reaction; a positive one.
“Whenever I’ve had the opportunity to talk with ministers or nuns, they are just exhilarated by the freedom that Jews have with the text,” she said, and recalled one of the first talks she gave about the book, at women’s college with chaplains in attendance.
At the talk, the head chaplain of the college told her she was “envious of the freedom” that Jews can take with their holy scripture. Diamant added that a rabbi friend of hers gives the book to conversion students as an example of how they should read the bible.
“You’re allowed to ask questions. It’s unique. Something that I’m proud of in our tradition,” Diamant said. “I feel I have permission to do whatever I want with the Bible.” In researching the book, she said, she didn’t do rabbinic research or even look at the Bible.
“I looked at the anthropology and the history, not the Midrash,” Diamant said.
Almost two decades later, the staying power of The Red Tent and now its reintroduction into pop culture with the new movie feels gratifying to Diamant, who has a new book coming out on December 9, two days after the Red Tent premiere.
“I was so gratified that people wanted to make this into a movie,” Diamant said, adding that she had never really imagined the book on screen. “I have friends who cast books as they write them, but I don’t.
For the director [Frances McDormand], this was really a passion project. I felt like it happened so quickly once the final papers were signed. 17 years later suddenly – one, two three! – there’s a movie.”