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 late 19th / early 20th century boarding school, 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 effects of the women’s unexplained absence on their 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 their zombic 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…
The girls seem to be tempted by men left, right and centre. I remember there being very few men in the previous versions, to their credit. What was so interesting was an exploration of inherently libidinal women. Women whose desires overflow in their relative boarding school isolation, not needing to be channelled into any nearby men. Miranda, drawn libidinally towards the earth, here becomes fodder for a near-rape as if to emphasise the danger she brings upon herself.
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. I’m not usually one to get upset about disloyal book adaptations and remakes, but to bastardise the story’s very nature to such an extent is a powerful disappointment.
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.
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.
Just as the girls are “fully prepared to take the step into the unknown”, the 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.
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.