When the Australian director Peter Weir arranged to meet the writer Joan Lindsay in the early 1970s, her publisher warned him there was one question he absolutely must not ask. They were meeting to discuss turning Lindsay’s 1967 novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock, into a feature film. The book, which she wrote at 70 years old over a feverish month, opens on Valentine’s Day in 1900 at Appleyard College for Young Ladies, a fictional boarding school outside Melbourne. Girls in pinafores and straw hats are preparing for an outing to Hanging Rock, where giant obelisks of red stone jut out of the earth and create a labyrinth of craggy interstices—a geological marvel and a sacred site for Aboriginal Australians.
In Picnic, Lindsay tells the story of three friends—the bold ringleader, Miranda; the pretty heiress, Irma; and the curious, intelligent Marion—who break away from their classmates to explore the contours of the mountain. Trailing behind them is their chubby, whining classmate Edith and a math teacher, Greta McGraw. Of the five women who set off on the trail to the rock, only Edith returns, screaming her head off. Several days later, Irma also emerges from the woods, not remembering a single thing that happened to her. Miranda, Marion, and Miss McGraw are never found, vanished without a trace.
Weir was told not to ask whether the story was true and was wary of asking about the ending. Lindsay certainly flirted with the idea that she had based the mystery on her own girlhood experiences. “Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves,” the novel’s epigraph reads. “As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.” The possibility it might have a basis in reality fueled the book’s cult success. But Lindsay refused to discuss the inspiration any further. Weir pressed her on the ending. Did she think the girls had been abducted? Dropped into a black hole? Transported to another plane of consciousness? She would only tell him that all options were possible, and continued to sip her coffee.
Despite his prying, Weir earned Lindsay’s blessing for an adaptation. His 1975 film, which is now part of the Criterion Collection, feels like a long dream sequence, suffused in pink light. The pacing is languorous, woozy, dipped in honey. The first shot lingers on girls lazily tightening each other’s corsets; there is a sense that these girls are complicit in their own bindings, but that they also don’t take them too seriously. Miranda, in the film version, is an ethereal blonde who waltzes into the wilderness as her acolytes follow, magnetized by her hazy aura. When the film originally aired, many moviegoers walked out upset. They could not stand the open ending, the blunt opacity of the unsolved mystery. Weir’s film is a poem about not knowing—the interiors of women, the fates of those who choose a new path—and it stands alone as one of the most exhilarating, and also frustrating, films ever made.
These are big bloomers to fill. Deciding that it was time for a modern update, a team of Australian television producers have made a new six-part series based on Lindsay’s novel, which airs in the United States on Amazon Prime on May 25. The series, adapted by writers Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison, immediately feels distinct from the film version, though it is still set in 1900 and is an incredibly detailed period piece down to the last lace glove.
In the first scene, we meet the headmistress, Mrs. Appleyard, touring the grand mansion that will become Appleyard College. In the book, she stands for the opposite of everything that the blossoming young women embody—she believes in strictures, tight bodices, whipping by cane. Now she is a young, feline schemer played by a bona fide television star, Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer. While the novel provides small clues that her backstory isn’t all that she claims, the series leans into it, suggesting that she narrowly escaped the mean streets of London and changed her name (Miranda finds evidence of Mrs. Appleyard’s murky past in the pilot) to start all over in Australia. It’s clear she is a con artist.
The girls are also given more origin-story gristle. Miranda (Lily Sullivan), now a coltish brunette, used to ride horses on her family farm and continues to run away from school like an unbroken filly. Marion, the smart one, is played by the talented Indigenous actress Madeleine Madden, an acknowledgment, of sorts, on the part of producers of the ways in which Lindsay appropriated sacred ground for her own story. Irma (Samara Weaving) is still a glamorous socialite, but in the series she is inclined toward sexual fluidity; she tenderly kisses Miranda on the mouth in one episode, an act of teenage provocation but also a testing of sexual boundaries. Sara (Inez Curro), a young orphaned student who shares a room with Miranda and becomes infatuated with her, is played with a creepy look, as if she might be a child in need of an exorcism. She has been forbidden to attend the picnic by Mrs. Appleyard. Clearly disturbed and volatile, Sara provides the horror subplot of the show—after her classmates vanish, she takes to drawing eerie portraits of the dead and hanging them all over the school.
And then there are the men who haunt this story—a rich boy named Mike who follows the girls for a while up the trail, his rugged valet who might also love him, the chief of police who cannot cope with his failure to find bodies, an all-seeing old gardener, and a leering stable hand who tries to rape Miranda in the first episode and winds up with a pitchfork through his foot. These men live on the periphery of the series, all potentially guilty and all certainly in the dark as to the truth of what happened out on the rock. It is clear that whatever took place on the peak did so in a language passed between women; it is the women left behind who come closest to unraveling the clues.
Like the novel and film that preceded it, Picnic at Hanging Rock is defined by lacunae and not gore, absence instead of presence. And yet the new television version gestures toward dark backstories of abuse and deceit, the suggestion of bodily mutilation. Blood is all over the show. In one scene, Mrs. Appleyard commands that Miranda’s hands be beaten with a switch until they are oozing and raw; in another, the three main girls make a blood oath in a rose garden, running their palms over thorns until they’ve turned the pink flowers scarlet. When Edith gets her first period on the morning of the picnic, Mrs. Appleyard tells her “bad timing will define your life” with a sneer; the idea being that all women bleed, some just do it more inconveniently than others.
The series feels lush, the lawns neon green. The creators have infused it with modern rhythms, as techno beats wind their way into Victorian dances. These little touches make the show feel vibrant and, yes, relevant. The dreamy, voyeuristic 1970s approach to this story feels like a luxury that women today may not be able to afford; we are living in more direct times, in which the goals of liberation have become sharper and more straightforward. There is no hiding the message of the girls’ disappearances behind a rosy scrim. The series suggests two clear outcomes: The girls were either terribly hurt by men or, ultimately, saved by their ability to elude men forever.
The marketing team has pushed Picnic as a #MeToo narrative, as if three girls disappearing on purpose is a response to the systemic abuses of men. But in a way, the initial allure of Picnic at Hanging Rock was its detachment from current trends, and so something rare about the story has been lost in translation. By playing up the noir aspects of Mrs. Appleyard’s secret history and giving Miranda a clear motivation for fleeing, the show becomes a blazing feminist allegory. It also changes the fact that Lindsay never intended the girls’ secrets to be mined; she left their hearts as sparsely charted a territory as the outback.
In fact, Joan Lindsay did write a final chapter of Picnic at Hanging Rock that explained what happened to the girls. In it, the girls hear a voice and feel compelled to remove their corsets, tossing the garments into the air, where they hang as if suspended on a wire. They then follow a snake into a crevice in the side of a rock—meant to signify some sort of supernatural time warp—and disappear. Lindsay’s editor asked her to remove the final twelve pages—better to leave the air thick with questions than introduce the definitive presence of magic in the universe.
Without the last chapter, Picnic at Hanging Rock becomes so much bigger than a genre twist; it becomes the story of young women breaking out of a repressed sexuality, of a seam splitting in the side of Victorian mores and allowing the girls an opportunity to break free. Miranda, ever willful and determined, is drawn to the rock by forces that seem bigger than herself but is aware that beyond lies something better than whatever might await her after she graduates. Mrs. Appleyard is haunted by her failure to protect them—or to stop them from achieving liberation. She leaps off the edge of Hanging Rock to her death.
There is something about the novel and Weir’s film that feels impenetrable—outside of time rather than of it—and this fogginess is absent in the remake, which has been polished to a mirrored sheen. You are not supposed to know what happened to the girls at Hanging Rock, ever. The new series does, thankfully, leave the mystery unresolved. But it tilts toward a resolution. And as Lindsay might say, such things are best left unsaid, as one sips coffee in the drawing room.