Picnic at Hanging Rock (2018)

Now that Westworld season 2 has finished, it’s about time I found some more telly to write about.

The BBC has just started showing a new mini-series based on Joan Lindsey’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. (Originally released on Amazon Prime, I believe, and now finding its way to the old-fashioned broadcast TV.)

Eighteen months ago, I’d never heard of the book before reading about it in Mark’s The Weird and the Eerie. After Mark’s beautiful exploration of the book, I bought it and demolished it in a single sitting. Shortly afterwards, I fell in love with the 1976 film adaptation as well.

I’ve written about the story before — briefly in “Reaching Out to the Other” — so I won’t rehearse the synopsis again in too much detail because, going forwards, it might not even be that useful.

Suffice it to say that the central event around which the story orbits is the disappearance of a group of young Australian women from a boarding school in the early 1900s, enticed onto some other plane (we can only assume) by some unknown agency when they visit a local beauty spot for a picnic.

The film and book, from this point, both consider the consequences of the women’s unexplained absence on their immediate community. The story, in this way, is a tracing of the repercussions that ripple out from an event: an event which is nothing more than an absence. It is, effectively, a study of trauma without trauma; the trauma of a void, of gaps, of unexplained emptiness.

Fisher wrote, all too presciently, in the final sentences of The Weird and the Eerie, about how the disappeared women in the book and film are

fully prepared to take the step into the unknown. They are possessed by the eerie calm that settles whenever familiar passions can be overcome. They have disappeared, and their disappearances will leave haunting gaps, eerie intimations of the outside.

My love for this story was intensified further by Robin’s lecture on the film at the start of this year, as a “study of cryptolithic passion”, a “descent into the world-soul”.

It is the story of a “splitting away from the socially conditioned personality”, a “shedding of a layer of subjectivity … reaching out towards a complicity with the inorganic.” (I’m drawing on my notes here.)

Robin called it — the film in particular, that is, with its deeply evocative soundtrack — “one of the most sustained geopoetical works” there is.

So it goes without saying that, as I start episode one of this new adaptation, it has a lot to live up to…

What is immediately different about this adaptation is, well… everything.

We begin with Hester Appleyard (played by Natalie Dormer) pacing around an abandoned house. It’s an already familiar beginning but not from this story.

A major strength of the novel is its realism, its utter immersion in the mundane. The event around which its narrative unfolds is a flash of a kind of magical realism, never resolved, amongst an otherwise “normal” account of life in a school.

Here, however, we’re immediately thrown into a familiar trope of the paranormal: “unsuspecting woman buys decrepit old mansion.” Except she’s not unassuming. There’s something not quite right about this Miss Appleyard. She seems to be something of a… con woman?

Everything here is heightened, exaggerated. There’s no realism here. It’s just another example of Hollywood bloating out a narrative to make it more appealing (and familiar) to narratively-conservative audiences.

Ten minutes in and this seems to be Picnic at Hanging Rock meets St Trinian’s. And I can’t think of a worse fate for this story.

Things end up going from bad to worse.

Miranda, the lead in all versions of the story, is here quite familiar. A wayward spirit possessed, even before her encounter with the rock, by a strange libidinal force.

Robin noted too that there is “an eerie, languorous eroticism that hovers over” the 1976 film: there is “a libidinal force at work in the whole narrative”. That was always already expressed without needing to subject Miranda, as this new adaptation chooses, to a sexual assault in the stables…

It’s a moment handled well, and highlighting such dangers that women face is certainly all the rage on TV at the moment, and appropriately so, but I’m still bemused as to why it needed to be added to a story that already explored such themes of female sexuality without it.

What was so interesting about the original story was its exploration of inherently libidinal women. Women whose desires overflow in their relative boarding school isolation, not needing to be channelled into any nearby men but channeled into the landscape itself. Revolutionary desire in its purest form. Miranda, drawn libidinally towards the earth, here becomes fodder for assault as if to emphasise the danger her wayward being brings upon herself.

It’s not an uninteresting or inappropriate path to explore but it seems to exemplify the approach to this new adaptation, heightening drama and removing the eeriness absences that were so central to the story.

There is no eerie here.

Despite the amount of time it has given itself, the girl’s disappearance — the central moment of the entire story — feels rushed, depicted through cliched dream sequences and over in a flash. So much time if given to subplots that the central plot is muddied and hard to follow.

It is a version of the story that seems to be an enemy of itself, inserting precisely what the story was written against back into its DNA. The women’s central propensity towards societal escape is here made impotent. As other women are given backstories of lives they hope to escape, there is foreshadowing of them becoming each other’s enemies, threatening to drag the past into the present.

I’m not usually one to get upset about disloyal book adaptations and remakes, but to bastardise the story’s central conceit of escape and nullify it to such an extent is a powerful disappointment. This seems to be an adaptation made my people with no real understanding of the strengths of the story they are working with.

Sam Wollaston has reviewed this first episode for the Guardian. I can’t say I agree with it. Not his impression of this series nor his reappraisal of the ’76 adaptation as “thin, all about the creation of an atmosphere and not a lot else.”

Wollaston goes on to ask the question that I first wondered when hearing this adaptation was in the works: “How the hell are they going to stretch out that story to six episodes?” The answer, he rightly points out, is by “filling it out, making it bigger in every way.”

Bigger is not always better. If the previous version was “thin”, this new version is so “big” as to eclipse everything that made the originals worthwhile. Just as the girls are “fully prepared to take the step into the unknown”, the original film and novel asked as much of their audiences — and to devastating effect. Here, it seems, the unknown has been utterly exorcised, replaced with shitty tropes, the absence of which were partly what made the original film so enchanting.

For a story that centres around an absence, it is the singular strength of the film — a strength it holds even over the original novella — that it doubles down on its eeriness, exacerbating the emptiness of a mystery on the Australian frontier, resisting the temptation to do what this new adaptation has done: force-feed it familiarity to fattened it up for Hollywood expectations. For all its Lynchian references, much could have been done here to exacerbate the eeriness of emptiness, as Twin Peaks: The Return did so radically with its incredibly slow and deliberate pace. No such care is taken here.

I’m not enchanted by this. Nor am I unsettled. Perhaps shockingly, for someone who loves the “thin” 1976 adaptation so much, I’m just bored.

All this being said, I intend to stick with this series. I’ll see if I feel the same way once I’ve watched it all.

1 Comment

  1. things re: girls get a bit more um libidinal later … it is better than it seems maybe, Some of the colours and so on / / / . . . odd also it seems to oscillate between the real and the eerie / note the hardly mentioned two men passing dressed as though from another time . , ,

    no other TV tho? What about The Leftovers ?

    Odd too picnic@ : the girls who go missing seem to be the only pretty girls at the school /// I started thinking a sacrifice is being made somehow.

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