Across the level golden plain long shadows were crawling out of the forest, over the thin lines of post and rail fences, a few scattered sheep, a windmill with motionless silver sails catching the last of the sun. On the Rock, darkness stored all day in its fetid holes and caves seeped out into the twilight and it was night.
(Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock, 1967)
I first saw Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock sometime in the very early eighties. It is difficult to pinpoint the date exactly, but I know from the clear memory I have, of wandering into our living room and finding my brother sitting in front of the television watching the film, that it was definitely before 1982, when we moved from that house to another, in another village. The image that sticks in my mind most clearly from that first viewing is that of Rachel Roberts as Mrs Appleyard, seated behind her desk in the movie’s final seconds, veiled in black and visibly deranged as from a dreadful shock. Her monolithic, somehow terrible form remained in my memory as that of a monster, something horrible from Doctor Who or Night of the Demon or The Ghoul. The film as a whole—along with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), which I first saw at around the same time—provided a defining moment in my understanding of what speculative fiction is, and what it can do. It was the movie’s ambiguity that both terrified and compelled me, that numinous sense of something other. The lack of any easily identifiable solution to the mystery seemed entirely congruent with my own growing and deepening awareness of the world and its innumerable loose ends.
Weir’s film, and the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay upon which it is based, became touchstone works for me in the decades following; the book perfect in its brevity and understatement, the movie also perfect in so faithfully adapting the novel’s atmosphere and quirks of narrative for the screen. I had read the novel at least twice over the years, and seen the movie numerous times, when I learned early in 2018 that there was to be a new, six-part TV adaptation. I was excited and curious, all the more so when I found out who the screenwriters were: Beatrix Christian, who previously adapted Raymond Carver’s story “So Much Water So Close to Home” for Ray Lawrence’s film Jindabyne (2006), and Alice Addison, who adapted Julia Leigh’s short novel The Hunter (1999) for Daniel Nettheim’s movie of the same name (2011). These were two of my favourite Australian films of all time—what could possibly go wrong?
I sat down to view the first episode of Larysa Kondracki’s Picnic at Hanging Rock with great anticipation. I was taken aback by the visceral dislike and, at a critical level, grave disappointment I felt at what I actually saw. When Strange Horizons asked if I would consider reviewing the series, my initial reaction was to say no. I could not imagine myself having anything other than negative things to say, which made me wrong for the task from the outset. The more I thought about the project, however, the more interested I became. For the critic, strong reactions are interesting in and of themselves: why did I dislike this new adaptation so much? Did my reaction say more about me and my attachment to an earlier adaptation than it did about the new material?
It was at this point that I realised two things: firstly, that I did want to write this review after all, and secondly, that in order to make sense of what I was feeling I would need to return to source. Not just the Peter Weir film but the novel itself. How accurately did I recall it? It was after all ten years at least and probably more since I had read the book, and as I was soon to discover anew, memory is an infamous trickster.
For those readers who are unfamiliar with Picnic at Hanging Rock, here follows a brief synopsis of Joan Lindsay’s novel. On February 14, 1900, a four-horse conveyance sets out from Appleyard College, a private educational establishment for young ladies to the north of Melbourne. Seated in the covered drag are some twenty teenage girls and two of their schoolmistresses, on their way to a Valentine’s picnic at the Hanging Rock, a local beauty spot and site of geological importance. It is a hot day, and the girls have been given permission to remove their gloves and hats, though they have been strictly forbidden by their headmistress to attempt to climb the rock. Mrs Appleyard has pronounced it “extremely dangerous,” a habitat for venomous spiders and snakes. The girls consume their picnic lunch and then sleep in the sun. On waking, both schoolmistresses and the coach driver discover their watches have stopped. The driver, Mr Hussey, has promised Mrs Appleyard to have the party back at the College no later than eight o’clock and is eager to start for home as soon as possible.
As Hussey refills the billies to brew fresh tea, four of the girls—Miranda, Marion, Irma, and a younger, less popular girl, Edith Horton—ask if they can go closer to the Rock in order to sketch it. Permission is granted, so long as they are back at the picnic site within the hour. On their way across the creek, they are spotted by Michael Fitzhubert, the twenty-year-old nephew of a local dignitary, Colonel Fitzhubert, and heir to an English fortune. Time passes, and the girls do not return. Further, it is realised that one of the schoolmistresses, Greta McCraw, is also missing. Eventually Edith Horton reappears, tearing through the bushes, screaming and covered with scratches. She is unable to give a sensible account of what has happened. After a cursory search, the remaining schoolmistress, Madame de Poitiers, sees no alternative but to return to Appleyard College and report what has happened.
The following day a full police search is mounted, but without success. A week after the girls’ disappearance, Michael Fitzhubert returns to the Rock in the company of the Fitzhuberts’s coachman, Albert Crundall. After a night alone on the Rock, Michael finds Irma, deeply unconscious but apparently unharmed. As the days and weeks pass with the other girls and Miss McCraw still missing, tensions mount within the small community, revealing fault lines and secrets not just at the College but within the heart of Australian society itself.
Joan Lindsay was sixty-eight when she published the novel, the plot of which she always maintained came to her in a dream. Peter Weir’s movie adaptation not only made the book a bestseller, but also laid the foundation stone of modern Australian cinema.
What I think would most surprise those fans of the Peter Weir film who have not read Joan Lindsay’s novel is how forthright it is, how sardonic and how knowing. I have heard the film described by those who are not fans as “girls mooning about in white dresses” and I have the sense that this is largely how the novel is also perceived among the uninitiated. Yet Picnic at Hanging Rock is no period costume drama. The tone of the narrative—told throughout in omniscient third person—is lively, sarcastic, and often funny, whilst still allowing ample room for the sense of mounting tension and horror that anchors it so firmly in the imagination. On numerous occasions, Joan Lindsay is seen to break the fourth wall, addressing her readers directly, flicking back and forth in time to deliver an unexpected revelation or rebuke.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is a novel that frequently turns up on Best Horror or Best Mystery lists and with ample justification—but a fresh reading left me in no doubt that Lindsay’s work is equally, and importantly, a social novel, attacking issues of class, societal division, and the position and perception of women with fearless gusto. What was immediately apparent about the 2018 adaptation—even on my first, deeply ambivalent encounter—was that it was this social commentary in particular that the screenwriters had sought to emphasise and reinforce. Even the title card—shocking pink capitals over a black background—is in some sense indicative of this: I was reminded of the jewel colours employed so memorably in the design and costuming of Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, another famously irreverent handling of august source material. Cezary Skubiszewski’s dynamic, starkly contemporary scoring is similarly a statement of intent. Right from the first frames, the screenwriters and director leave us in no doubt that we are in for something different—something intended to provoke controversy, even. Contrary to the way it has been described in so many reviews, Larysa Kondracki’s Picnic at Hanging Rock is not a remake, but a new adaptation, and worthy of serious attention in that light.
Joan Lindsay’s novel is short, a brief 212 pages in length, while Peter Weir’s film runs for just 115 minutes, 107 in the 1998 director’s cut. Most film adaptations offer by necessity a more compressed narrative than that of their original source material, but the 2018 adaptation stretches to six fifty-minute episodes. The first question we might find ourselves asking is: what has been added, to which the most obvious answer is backstory. In the novel, the principal characters’ backgrounds are sketched in with deft economy: Miranda is sunny-natured and outdoors-loving, the cherished only daughter of a prosperous cattle farmer in northern Queensland; Marion Quade is the academic of the group, the ward of a family solicitor and the favourite of the “brilliant mathematician” Greta McCraw; Irma Leopold is a Rothschild heir, but in spite of her immense privilege she is generous by instinct and loving in temperament; Miranda is especially protective towards a younger girl, an orphan, Sara Waybourne, who has been left behind as punishment for her failure to recite by heart the poem “The Wreck of the Hesperus”; Sara’s school fees are paid by an explorer uncle, Jasper Cosgrove.
In the new adaptation, these details are expanded upon and augmented to a considerable extent. The 2018 Miranda (Lily Sullivan) is rebellious and confrontational almost from her first scenes, openly challenging Mrs Appleyard in a manner that seems entirely out of keeping with the Miranda of the novel. Similarly Irma (Samara Weaving)—her famous black ringlets replaced by golden curls—is now brittle, haughty, and excessively fashion-conscious. Marion (Madeleine Madden) is mixed race—a potentially interesting development, but underplayed. We learn little of her background save that she is “Justice Quade’s bastard.”
The most drastic changes, however, are dealt to Mrs Appleyard and Greta McCraw. This is how Joan Lindsay introduces us to fifty-seven-year-old Mrs Appleyard in the novel:
With her high-piled greying pompadour and ample bosom, so rigidly controlled and disciplined as her private ambitions, the cameo portrait of her late husband flat on her respectable chest, the stately stranger looked precisely what the parents expected of an English Headmistress. And as looking the part is well known to be more than half the battle in any form of business enterprise from Punch and Judy to floating a loan on the Stock Exchange, the College, from the very first day, was a success; and by the end of the first year, showing a gratifying profit. (p. 3)
Mrs Appleyard’s background is uncertain then, a personal insecurity that will have grave repercussions as the action progresses, hinted at here by Lindsay with the same lightness of touch that characterises the novel in general. Our new Mrs Appleyard—in the 2018 adaptation she is given a Christian name, Hester—is played by Natalie Dormer as a Gothic villain with more than a touch of Mrs Danvers about her. The school she runs—complete with religious mania and extreme corporal punishment—is reminiscent of Lowood in Jane Eyre. Hester’s “husband,” Arthur, played by Phlip Quast, is an East End rogue, a kind of Mac the Knife who dragged Hester from the gutter with the sole intent of inveigling her in his monstrous schemes. Hester flees to Australia with enough money to buy the mansion and open the College, spontaneously renaming herself Appleyard after a brand of soap she happens to see on an advertising poster. As melodrama it is distinctly sudsy, reminding me of another recent, overbaked TV gothic, Tom Hardy’s 2017 Taboo (now there’s eight hours of my life I’ll never get back).
Equally tampered with is Greta McCraw. Described by Lindsay in the novel as forty-five years of age and “far too brilliant for her poorly paid job at the College,” Miss McCraw is an intellectual, permanently preoccupied with the abstract beauties of mathematics:
The governess walked at her usual measured pace, uninhibited as Royalty, and with an almost royal dignity. Nobody had ever seen her in a hurry, or without her steel-rimmed spectacles. (p. 6)
Greta McCraw as played by Anna McGahan must be all of thirty, a lesbian whose friendship with Marion Quade is anything but scholarly. Similarly, Dr McKenzie in the novel is described as “an elderly GP”—not the dashing and vaguely sinister young Scots doctor of the new adaptation, played by Don Hany. Michael Fitzhubert (Harrison Gilbertson), the pitiable poor little rich boy of the book (and of Peter Weir’s movie), is replaced by a stalker with a stocking fetish, on the run from a secret homosexual past in Cambridge.
Of course the perceived success of any screen adaptation should not reside in a to-the-letter faithfulness to its originating text, and any or all of these developments might be invigorating if properly handled, but I don’t think they are. Rather, they come across as trowelled-on melodrama, a quite literal “sexing up” of a narrative whose effectiveness as text is based in its subtlety. Much of what the 2018 adaptation dwells on is present in the novel—repressed sexuality, the psychological abuse of minors, brutally drawn class divides, a lack of viable options for women in general and educated women in particular—but they are woven into the story all but invisibly, fine-stitched as needlepoint. In the 2018 adaptation, what we get instead is a species of pantomime, too heavy-handed and ripe with cliché to make for satisfying drama.
One of the themes that emerges most strongly in the novel is the gulf that exists between the characters and the landscape they inhabit, a theme that not only helps to define Picnic at Hanging Rock’s palpably urgent sense of place, but one that forms a rich seam in Australian literature in general. Lindsay writes with forthright clarity about the precarious relationship between the middle classes—for that read white colonists—and the land they occupy. Here she deftly encapsulates the character and concerns of the Fitzhuberts and their friends:
Pleasant, comfortable people for whom the current Boer War was the most catastrophic event since the Flood, and Queen Victoria’s approaching Jubilee a world-shattering occasion to be celebrated by champagne and fireworks on the lawns. (pp. 76-7)
And later, more dramatically, in Mrs Appleyard’s final, fatal assault on the Rock, Lindsay seems to hint at the predicament of an entire Empire:
She who had lived so close to the little forest on the Bendigo Road had never felt the short wiry grass underfoot. Never walked between the straight, shaggy stems of the stringybark trees. Never paused to savour the jubilant gusts of spring that carried the scent of wattle and eucalypt right into the front hall of the College. Nor sniffed with foreboding the blast of the North wind, laden in summer with the fine ash of mountain fires. (p. 208)
Lindsay is everywhere interested in the destructive intrusion by humans into a landscape they do not understand—note how Michael Fitzhubert is described as a “clumping monster” as he makes his way into the bush at the foot of the Rock (p. 81). Joan Lindsay’s writing expertly captures the landscape’s beauty and strangeness, the divide between those creatures that belong there and those that do not:
The sunny slopes and shadowed forest, to Edith so still and silent, were actually teeming with unheard rustlings and twitterings, scufflings, scratchings, the light brush of unseen wings. Leaves, flowers and grasses glowed and trembled under the canopy of light; cloud shadows gave way to golden motes dancing above the pool where water beetles skimmed and darted. On the rocks and grass the diligent ants were crossing miniature Saharas of dry sand, jungles of seeding grass, in the never-ending task of collecting and storing food ...
Insulated from natural contacts with earth, air and sunlight, by corsets pressing on the solar plexus, by voluminous petticoats, cotton stockings and kid boots, the drowsy, well-fed girls lounging in the shade were no more a part of their environment than figures in a photograph album, arbitrarily posed against a background of cork rocks and cardboard trees. (pp. 17-18)
Peter Weir takes great pains to accentuate this essential element of the text in his film adaptation, even down to engaging a nature photographer (David Sanderson) for close focus work on reptiles and invertebrates. Weir’s movie captures the golden dusty light of the Australian afternoon so perfectly it appears to have somehow been lifted straight from the book, whilst camera angles make constant, sinister play on the idea of “hidden faces” in the rock face and its outlying boulders.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the new adaptation is its relative lack of feeling for the landscape. The work is after all entitled Picnic at Hanging Rock—yet for all the ominous talk of ghosts and hauntings, Kondracki gives us very little sense of the all-encompassing spookiness of the place, the very attribute that made Weir’s adaptation so memorable. “I dislike the Australian landscape,” states Natalie Dormer’s Hester Appleyard at one point. “It is insubordinate.” Yet in the 2018 adaptation it is not the Rock, but Appleyard College—that cauldron of darkness, self-harm, and alcoholism—that looms large as an additional character in the narrative. The screenwriters seem much more interested in sexual abuse and family secrets, those stalwart staples of twenty-first-century thriller narratives, than in the more elusive drama of psychogeography and sense of place.
Yet it would be wrong to suggest that the 2018 adaptation is without merit or lacks a vision of its own. In an interview he gave to coincide with the release of the director’s cut of the movie on DVD, Weir explained how he had actually redacted material from the original print in order to offer a more streamlined, cohesive flow of narrative. Thus Irma and Mike’s relationship in the latter third of the movie is cut to a single shot, and Mrs Appleyard’s ascent of the Rock—a genuinely disturbing piece of footage—replaced with a snippet from a radio broadcast.
By contrast, the screenwriters of the 2018 adaptation make some interesting choices in reasserting the importance of the novel’s subplots. The relationship between Irma and Michael is afforded substantial screen time in a sequence of events transferred, almost scene by scene, straight from the novel. Likewise, the important roles played by Mrs Valange (Sibylla Budd) and Dianne de Poitiers (Lola Bessis) in trying first to help Sara Waybourne (Inez Curro), and then to uncover the horrific truth behind her disappearance, are reinstated in full, lending these characters the depth and agency Lindsay clearly intended. There are scenes in the 2018 adaptation that I did not remember at all from the novel. I was intrigued, on rereading the text, to find how central those scenarios were to Lindsay’s vision. I was also surprised to discover how much the 1975 film had come to dominate my sense of how the book played out.
The fate of the music mistress, Dora Lumley, and her brother Reg I had forgotten entirely. Once again, the 2018 screenwriters give back to Dora her place in the scheme of things, and here at least I felt their choices in expanding upon Dora’s characterisation were interesting and justified. In the novel, Dora and Reg are drawn as dogged, unimaginative individuals whose main failing is one of insight. In the 2018 adaptation, Reg’s loathsome moralising and coercive control of his sister is shown to induce in Dora (Yael Stone) a desperate, corrosive religiosity, with the added sad irony that her final attempt to free herself from Reg (Aaron Glenane) leads directly to both their deaths.
The 2018 adaptation must also be given credit for introducing native Australians into the narrative. The Aboriginal peoples who once populated the area around Hanging Rock are not so much as mentioned in the novel, and although the adaptation is somewhat ham-fisted in its treatment of the subject, it is at least there. Kondracki is more successful in her attempts to counteract the occasionally troubling imagery around the girls in the Peter Weir movie. In his portrayal of the schoolgirls, Weir is said to have been inspired by the photography of David Hamilton—hardly the healthiest of role models—and while there is nothing overtly prurient in Weir’s vision there is a palpable tendency towards idealisation and objectification of the adolescent female, most especially in the case of Miranda, presented as the apogee of innocence and latent desirability.
The 2018 adaptation gives the girls more agency, constantly reminding the audience that Miranda, Irma, and Marion are eighteen years old—not girls but young women. The light is clearer and less forgiving. Sequences immediately identifiable from the Peter Weir movie are recast in sometimes surprising ways, most notably the iconic moment when Miranda turns and looks back over her shoulder as she heads off up the Rock—in the 2018 adaptation her final farewell to Madame de Poitiers is to stick out her tongue. How far this Heatherisation of the central characters will satisfy or convince will come down to how much leeway individual viewers are prepared to grant the screenwriters and directors in their interpretation of the manners and mores of characters created in 1967 inhabiting the world of 1900. For me this kind of creative licence is not a problem, indeed I happen to believe it should be actively encouraged. Much more at issue are the hackneyed tropes that are brought to bear in the telling of the tale. We are led to understand that Miranda is alienated because she is expected to marry as soon as she leaves the College; Irma is being secretly abused by her stepfather, and Marion is doomed to life as a spinster teacher because she’s gay and mixed race. There is a reason for everything, and every reason fits too tidily into its place. The entire effort seems stripped of mystery, an effect that would have been considerably ameliorated by less conventional thinking.
As a writer of speculative fiction, it would seem remiss of me not to mention Joan Lindsay’s original vision for Picnic at Hanging Rock as a science fiction novel. Her manuscript as first presented to the publisher included a final chapter—the legendary and for some years elusive Chapter Eighteen—that purported to solve the mystery of the girls’ disappearance. The book’s editor strongly advised that this chapter be cut. Lindsay agreed, but never seemed entirely happy with her decision, and left instructions that the chapter should be made available after her death. Scholars and fans of the novel are now free to read it—or not read it—as they wish. Those who do will perhaps be surprised by Lindsay’s determination that Picnic at Hanging Rock was never a story of murder or abduction but an attempt to make explicit her own feelings and theories about the mutability of time and parallel dimensions. Her exposition is a little clumsy, but it’s certainly bold, and assures the novel’s place in the speculative canon.
Echoes and ripples of Lindsay’s original vision remain, scattered throughout the text like Michael Fitzhubert’s torn-off scraps of paper, marking our way: the photograph of Miranda in its oval frame, Greta McCraw’s lifelong obsession with patterns of numbers, the fragment of lace petticoat discovered by tourists at the picnic site years later. Lindsay’s theme, above all, is time, and the ineradicable nature of certain stories:
At Appleyard College, out of a clear sky, from the moment the first rays of light had fired the dahlias on the morning of Saint Valentine’s Day, and the boarders, waking early, had begun the innocent interchange of cards and favours, the pattern had begun to form. Until now, on the evening of Friday the thirteenth of March, it was still spreading; still fanning out in depth and intensity, still incomplete. On the lower levels of Mount Macedon it continued to spread, though in gayer colours, to the upper slopes, where the inhabitants of Lake View, unaware of their allotted places in the general scheme of joy and sorrow, light and shade, went about their personal affairs as usual, unconsciously weaving and interweaving the individual threads of their private lives into the complex tapestry of the whole (pp. 120-21)
In its intimation that the girls’ disappearance was in some sense willed, voluntary, the 2018 adaptation hovers on the edge of such a revelation, even if it cannot bring itself to go the whole hog. Perhaps it should have done. If nothing else, that would certainly have given us something to think about.
In summing up, the Peter Weir film remains for me a beautifully judged work of art, a personal response to the novel that is as scintillating and atmospheric today as it was on release, even if it does lack some of the novel’s harder edges. Larysa Kondracki’s 2018 adaptation is an interesting approach to the source material, beautifully shot and well acted throughout, but it is everywhere over-egged, sacrificing subtlety to melodrama. As a passionate advocate of the original novel and the 1975 movie, I did find this new adaptation more interesting on a second viewing: even though I cannot bring myself to recommend it, I would judge it worth watching, if only for the joy and fascination of making comparison. I hope it sends a new generation of readers in search of the book, which remains spellbinding and unique and more than either adaptation deserving of its classic status. Most of all, I would be fascinated to read the opinions of critics who are in a position to approach Kondracki’s work simply as drama, without prior knowledge of either book or film. These are the viewers best placed to assess how well the 2018 adaptation works, in and of itself. For the rest of us, I suspect that it comes freighted with too much baggage.