The gambit of Picnic At Hanging Rock is this: on a drowsy Valentine’s Day in 1900, the students of Appleyard College for Young Ladies take leave of their Australian finishing school for a day-trip luncheon at a nearby geological wonder. As the rest of their cohort naps, four students and one teacher set off into the brush. The youngest girl returns, manic and screaming. Days later, another girl emerges with no recollection of what took place. The two remaining students and their teacher are never found. Plucked, it would seem, off the face of the earth.
Based on Joan Lindsay’s acclaimed 1967 novel of the same name, and adapted by Peter Weir in 1975, the tale has now been elongated into a 6-part mini-series for Amazon. Here, Hester Appleyard (Natalie Dormer) is not merely a knuckle-wrapping, tight-lipped headmistress, but a two-faced, undercover con-artist who’s migrated to the bottom of the world to outrun a seedy past. In the opening moments of the first episode, she trails an estate agent through the gaudy mansion that will become her campus, commanding the scene with naught but head tilts, laconic tuts, and veil rustles. Her performance is, by far, the highlight of the series.
Our core trio of sun-drunk students is also bequeathed a backstory. Miranda Reid (Lily Sullivan) is the daughter of a rural family lousy with brothers, plagued with the unfortunate combo of an independent streak and the unwanted pressure to find a husband. Irma Leopold (Samara Weaving) is a materialistic, jealous, and sexually fluid Rothschild heiress. And the bookish Marion Quad (indigenous actress Madeleine Madden), is reimagined as the illegitimate child of a judge and his Aboriginal mistress.
The series centers around the titular picnic, around which adjacent narrative threads, flashbacks, and investigative efforts unfurl to varying degrees of success. Much screen time is devoted to Hester’s past, and to clumsy vignettes of schoolgirls objectifying one another. With an added runtime almost three times that of its predecessor, there’s a sense that such supplements are perhaps unavoidable.
That the director’s cut of the 1975 original saw fit to take out rather than add footage is extremely telling. Notoriously, the book itself was released with its final, explanatory chapter excised. And it’s this evasiveness that made Weir’s film so haunting in the first place; the way it equivocally gestured, like some lace-bedecked Victorian ghost, towards unsayable horrors lurking just out of sight. As Roger Ebert put it, Weir’s viewer is not unlike the girls who manage to return safely from the picnic: “For us, as for them, the characters who disappeared remain always frozen in time, walking out of view, never to be seen again.”
I am a huge fan of horror films that get smuggled in under the name of other genres. And like any good horror film, Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock is at its most terrifying when we are left at the mercy of our own skittish imaginations. It’s a simple, enduring truth: horrifying things are always more horrifying when they lack a clear explanation. This is why the first half of Jaws leaves me sweaty and aqua-phobic. This is why the weakest scene in Psycho is when the uncanny is neutered by an unnecessary summative diatribe.
Explanations tend to cheapen magic tricks. It’s a hurdle faced by all media endeavoring to revisit old stories, and one that, in my opinion, is rarely surmounted. Invariably, the “fleshing out” of things comes into conflict with one of the oldest, and most consistently true adages of storytelling: show, don’t tell.
This is a pertinent truth for a visual medium like film, and one that is especially true of a story like Picnic at Hanging Rock. Exposition in Weir’s film took place in the intricate patterns of lace, in the droning hum of crags of rock, and in fleeting glances gleaned through knotted brambles. Meanwhile, in the Amazon series, motivations, histories, and relationships are not only described plainly but repeated to the point of redundancy.
While the main mystery remains as such, the series does skew towards resolution. A minor heresy that is compounded when all supporting vagaries are never allowed to speak for themselves. We are told, again and again, that Miranda is tomboyish, that Sara is rebellious, that Dora Lumley (an unrecognizable Yael Stone) is prudish. There is something innately counterintuitive about over-explaining a story whose entire point is evading explanation.
While Dormer’s performance is a jewel in the reboot’s crown, the additions to her character are relevant here. The original Appleyard (a crackling Rachel Roberts) was a woman whose violent proclivities were terrifying precisely because they bubbled up from a genuine, fervent devotion to notions of refinement, poise, and containment. She was an emissary of rigidity and limiting structure. She wanted to pin her girls up like insects and display them behind glass. To explain away her obsession with discipline as a ruse, or as merely a symptom of a criminal past cheapens and greatly limits the boundaries of her menace. When she finally snaps in the Amazon series we can see it coming from miles away. Her frayed edges become the tells of a bad liar instead of spidery cracks on a precariously frozen lake.
Where Weir went out of his way to hypnotize his audience to discourage the possibility of solutions, the Amazon series simply has too much time on its hands to keep up an air of mystery. It is in the truly unenviable position of trying to open up a story that, over-explained, ceases to exist. Something is lost under the weight of all those extraneous embellishments, and the making explicit of every vague suggestion. There are times when the Amazon reboot seems to confuse an overabundance of dutch angles for mood.
In this way, the mini-series is at war with itself. It has been tasked, impossibly, with limiting lyrical subtleties and forcing facts on a feature-length dream sequence. Knowing glances become entire episodes about romantic trysts; the tightening of a corset becomes the grounds for a full-blown familial upset; the impact of implied abuse is made less insidious through gratuitous over-exposure.
If Amazon was looking for a breakthrough series, a Handmaid’s Tale to their Hulu, they were barking up the wrong volcano. It is perhaps an impossible thing to have both ways: to preserve the tale’s fundamental impenetrability while also providing a more concrete idea of what, exactly, took place on that unnaturally woozy Valentine’s day afternoon.
These days it’s hard to throw a rock without hitting a limited series adaptation of a beloved classic. That’s fine. But form must match the content. Hanging Rock is a story defined by lack, not presence; suggestion, not fact. The girls and their disappearance ought to be as mystifying as the outback.
Something has been lost in translation. And to grossly misquote E.B. White, while mysteries can be dissected, not unlike a frog, the thing tends to die in the process.