Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay: Book, movie, and TV (Classics Club Spin #33)

This was originally going to be a book review post dedicated to my newest Classics Club Spin book… but then I got carried away! Not only did I read the book, but I also watched the movie and TV mini-series versions as well. Read on for my thoughts on all three (or, for the tl;dr version, jump right to the end!)

Let’s start where all such things should start — the book:

Title: Picnic at Hanging Rock
Author: Joan Lindsay
Publication date: 1967
Length: 204 pages

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Synopsis (Goodreads):

It was a cloudless summer day in the year 1900. Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of the secluded volcanic outcropping. Farther, higher, until at last they disappeared. They never returned. . . .

Mysterious and subtly erotic, Picnic at Hanging Rock inspired the iconic 1975 film of the same name by Peter Weir. A beguiling landmark of Australian literature, it stands with Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides as a masterpiece of intrigue.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is my most recent Classics Club Spin book. This is a book I’ve had my eye on for some time, so I was delighted when its number came up!

This 20th century Australian classic centers around the Appleyard College for Young Ladies, run by headmistress Mrs. Appleyard, a stiff and proper Englishwoman who enjoys the income afforded her by providing a fine finishing school education for the daughters of Australian society’s affluent families.

As the story opens, it’s Valentine’s Day, 1900, and the young women of Appleyard are setting out on a picnic, chaperoned by two teachers. It’s a hot day, and their destination lies hours away by horse-drawn carriage. After the excitement of receiving Valentine’s cards, emotions are running high. The girls are eager for adventure, yet must always remember the expectation that they behave like proper young ladies.

After a picnic at the foot of the towering Hanging Rock, as it’s almost time for the return journey, a few girls beg permission to take a short walk along the stream… and never return. Hours pass; finally, one of the party returns in terror, but with no explanation of what’s actually happened. No sign can be found of the three missing girls, and what’s more, it’s discovered that one of the teachers has also vanished. As night approaches, there’s no choice but to return to the school.

An intense manhunt follows, and while one girl is eventually found — but again, with no memories of what happened to her or the others — there’s no luck in finding the others. Rumors and intrigue spread; the incident becomes known as the College Mystery. Months pass, and the ripples of that fateful day spread and touch more and more people — and the enigmatic Mrs. Appleyard seems to slowly fall apart as well.

The writing in Picnic at Hanging Rock is lush and vivid. The depiction of Hanging Rock is stark, and the author carefully describes not just the rock formations themselves, but all the flora and fauna of the area as well. The contrast between the proper, buttoned-up, virginal girls and the wildness of their environment is vivid — while providing a simulated British boarding school environment, the school cannot help but also expose the girls to the dangerous, venomous, and treacherous landscapes all around them.

This book is quite famous for not actually answering the questions it raises. This isn’t a whodunnit with a big reveal at the end. We don’t know, and never find out, what truly happened to the missing girls. There’s another large question at the end that also doesn’t get answered. People appear in the story, and then fade from it, with the author pointing out at various points that this is where so-and-so’s role ends, and we hear no more from them.

A modern-day reader used to fast-paced thrillers and explosive plot twists might find this book slow, but I actually loved it. The mood builds slowly yet inexorably. There’s intrigue and dread, yet we also gets views of love and passion, disappointments and escapes, jealousies and fears. There’s an insidious sense of doom — from the day of the picnic, everything begins going downhill, even when the connections aren’t obvious.

There’s much debate about what happened to the girls. Were they attacked, murdered, kidnapped? Simply lost, perhaps fallen down a cliff? Were supernatural elements at play? An unpublished final chapter holds the key to the author’s original explanation, but even after reading about it, I think I’m happier with the book not providing answers to the mysteries.

I’m glad to have read Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s a tautly-written, fairly short novel that contains great writing and creates an eerie, aching mood. Highly recommended.

Next up, the first filmed version of Picnic at Hanging Rock:

Right after finishing the book, I watched the 1975 film by director Peter Weir, which is considered a movie masterpiece. At the time of its release, Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote:

HORROR need not always be a long-fanged gentleman in evening clothes or a dismembered corpse or a doctor who keeps a brain in his gold fish bowl. It may be a warm sunny day. the innocence of girlhood and hints of unexplored sexuality that combine to produce a euphoria so intense it becomes transporting, a state beyond life or death. Such horror is unspeakable not because it is gruesome but because it remains outside the realm of things that can be easily defined or explained in conventional ways.

Read full review, here, and an opinion piece written in 2017, here.

The movie delivers on the mood of the book, from start to finish. It’s cinematic in scope and has a dreamlike quality, often focusing in on the girls’ faces, showing their beauty and their overpowering emotions. Emotion rules everything — the girls’ romantic passion while reading Valentine cards, the devotion of a younger girl to an older, the delight of peeling off gloves and shoes as soon as civilizing forces are left behind, and for the young men encountered at the picnic, the obsessive dreams that follow a mere glimpse of a girl of startling beauty.

We also clearly see the downside of these emotional states, as various group scenes turn hysterical or threatening, when heightened emotions turn the girls (or in another instance, local townsfolk) into menacing mobs.

The film captures the book’s contrasts between the British-style manners and rules of the school and the untamable nature of the Australian bush, with gorgeous shots of the girls in white dresses disappearing between stones or coming in contact with insects and lizards. There were times in the book where I couldn’t quite connect the physical descriptions of the landscape with an image in my mind, so seeing the settings in the movie was very powerful.

The movie is just as ambiguous as the book. There’s no attempt to provide answers or tie things up neatly. The point of the movie is the feelings it evokes.

For further reading, here’s an interview piece on the themes of the movie (but proceed with caution — there are plot spoilers): http://www.filmcritic.com.au/reviews/p/picnic_hanging.html

Finally, my 2nd viewing experience — the 2018 mini-series, currently streaming on Prime Video.

This six-episode TV mini-series stars Natalie Dormer as the domineering headmistress Mrs. Appleyard. Based on the key art alone, it’s clear that this version is going for a very different vibe.

According to the Variety review:

Joan Lindsay’s much-acclaimed 1967 Australian novel “Picnic At Hanging Rock” has already resulted in one stunning adaptation — Peter Weir’s 1975 film of the same name — so a second attempt, this time a television series, may already feel unnecessary. But it doesn’t take long for writers Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison to make the case for their own 2018 “Picnic,” a darker, more mysterious, and extended version that manages to feel updated for our time while still keeping the original 1900 setting.

In “Picnic At Hanging Rock,” the central mystery is laid out immediately: Four young women — three students and their teacher — suddenly vanish on Valentine’s Day, 1900, while on a school picnic at, well, Hanging Rock. The base premise is familiar to fans of crime series, but this is no ordinary drama; it’s eerie and haunting. It’s less dreamy (a quality frequently ascribed to the film) and more of a nightmare that you’ll be eager to dive into.

(For an additional critical take on this mini-series, check out the New York Times review, here.)

Over the course of six episodes, the bones of the plot of Picnic at Hanging Rock remain intact, but the mini-series expands just about every element, creating backstories for many characters, envisioning heaps more romantic entanglements, and showing scenes of events at the Rock that are eerie and perhaps even intriguing, but that don’t ultimately add a whole lot to the story.

The key change, of course, is the character of Mrs. Appleyard. It’s evident early on that she is not what she seems. Rather than an older widowed Englishwoman focused on the profitability of turning out refined young women, here, she’s a scheming con artist posing as a wealthy, respectable woman — but we’re treated to her hidden Cockney accent early on, and through flashbacks, learn much more of her character.

The girls in her care are sympathetic, much more diverse than in the 1975 movie, and more explicitly curious about their own sexuality as well as the eroticism of the untamed world beyond the confines of the school. The cruelty and abuse are much more explicit here as well, and certain subplots and side characters are completely extraneous, either there as deliberate sensationalism or as plot padding.

The middle few episodes sag, and I had to restrain myself from fast-forwarding, but by the end, I did want to see the wrap-up and how it all plays out. The mini-series keeps some (but not all) of the ambiguity of the source material, but the heavy focus on Mrs. Appleyard makes many of the other elements fade into the background, and some of the romantic entanglements seem to serve no purpose other than distraction.

I suppose I’m glad to have watched the mini-series — to satisfy my curiosity and for the sake of completion — but I would have been perfectly fine without it too.

But don’t let me talk you out of checking it out! Here’s the trailer — see if it piques your interest:

Back to the Classics Club Spin:

Yes, I ventured far afield, not just reading my chosen book, but watching two different adaptations as well. And to wrap it all up, I’ll simply say:

THE BOOK: Haunting, eerie, ambiguous, beautiful

THE 1975 MOVIE: Dreamlike and artistic, maybe not suited to 21st century moviegoer tastes, but as an older film, it’s lovely to see. Even when the plot gets lost amidst the gorgeous cinematography, the spell of the movie makes it worthwhile.

THE 2018 MINI-SERIES: OK if you like this sort of thing. It’s all a bit of a muddle, dreamy in parts and then crossing over into a campier gothic feel. (Maybe I’m alone in this reaction — has anyone else seen it?)

The biggest takeaway: Picnic at Hanging Rock is definitely worth reading, and I’m so glad I did.

Can’t wait for the next CCSpin!

10 thoughts on “Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay: Book, movie, and TV (Classics Club Spin #33)

  1. I had this book on my TBR and then I removed it several months later since I realized I knew nothing about it. Now I am considering placing it back on the list. Maybe I should watch the movie first.

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