I was inspired to read Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay when the BBC scheduled a new series adaptation back in June (produced by Fremantle Media and Foxtel). I have a thing about needing to read the book before I can watch a screen adaptation and the previews just looked so good!
Picnic at Hanging Rock is often described as a modern Australian classic. Written in the sixties, the book is actually set at the turn of the 20th century and is the story of a group of teenage girls attending an Australian boarding school, who go missing along with a school mistress during a picnic at the ancient Hanging Rock and the impact this vanishing has on those at the school and in the local community.
I will be honest and say that it was a slow starter for me, it took me a while to get into the writing style and connect with both the plot and the characters. But once I was in I was in! It is only a slim novel yet there was so much packed into those pages. In many ways, I felt it needed to be longer to explore the themes and characters in more satisfying depth; I’m all for making the reader do some work but there was so much more potential there!
The themes of mysticism and nature: The Hanging Rock felt like a character in itself, linked to the ancient traditions of its Indigenous People and not understood by a white society trying to enforce its customs on the land. Its energy is mysterious, foreboding, timeless and tantalisingly just out of reach. I can see why so many people are frustrated with this book as there isn’t a clear, logical narrative and it is really difficult to pinpoint the nature of the rock’s role in events. One interpretation is that the girls use the picnic to escape from their lives, that there is a silent pact that the reader is not privy to. I really like the idea of the girls’ search for freedom being intertwined with the rock’s energy and being a portal for a life beyond the restrictions forced upon them as young women. Whether they do in fact commit group suicide, find a secret path through the rocks and build new lives elsewhere or, more fantastically, are swallowed by this energy portal, their lives are changed forever, and this has a profound ripple effect on all those connected with it as well. I was very much left with the impression that nature cannot be tamed, it holds the true power in the narrative.
The Head Mistress Mrs Appleyard: again, the character details were few and far between but there was just enough there to make me wonder what darkness lay beneath her rigid, harsh facade. It is deliciously dark how she represses herself, only escaping by means of a secret stash of alcohol in her desk drawer, and all the time constructing a cage for herself and the girls in her care. I got the impression that there was torment in her past back in England and felt incredibly sad that having managed to escape the country, she then becomes a repressor herself. The inevitable unravelling of Mrs Appleyard was so interesting, so intriguing and I think there is a whole other book waiting to be written about her.
The delicious web of secrets that everyone carries below the surface whilst trying to be part of a “civilised” society: I’m not going to go into detail here but let’s just say that the enticing contrast within Victorian society between what was being presented on the surface and what was in fact going on below the surface is present in abundance.
The theme of time: I’ve read that Lindsay was obsessed by time, believing it was a destructive force destroying creativity, restricting freedom and expression. The clocks stop when they get to Hanging Rock. I loved the symbolism of this. I also got the slightest hint of time travel every now and again, adding a further layer to the mystery of the girls’ disappearance.
The girls: Irma with an intense love of all things beautiful and almost narcissistic in nature; Marion with her deep thirst for knowledge and, above all, strong willed, sparky, provocative Miranda.
What I thought about the adaptation…
I absolutely loved it! It is very much made for a modern audience and is interpreted accordingly yet this isn’t a negative for me- it brings a fresh perspective and creates a new audience.
The production is stunning. The sumptuousness and piousness of Victorian Society is so well captured, the flashbacks and inner thought sequences totally captured my imagination. I adored the steam punk/Gothic element to Mrs Appleyard and her darkness is deliciously tangible. I thought the girl’s back stories were really well developed using the book as a starting point; they became so much more rounded than on paper – Miranda is a passionate feminist in the making, Marion explores her attraction to her teacher Ms. McCraw, and is given an Indigenous heritage background; Irma’s sensuality crackles with electricity. The purists among Lindsay’s readers were generally not impressed (according to the reviews that I read) but as far as my own experience is concerned, it captured the essence of the book brilliantly and, after all, isn’t a book interpreted differently by each reader anyway?