The New Picnic at Hanging Rock Focuses on its Women and Girls

15 May 2018 Guy Davis

The New Picnic at Hanging Rock Focuses on its Women and Girls


Re-adapting Picnic at Hanging Rock was never going to be easy, but this new miniseries has taken a different direction in telling its eerie tale – with a greater focus on female characterisations.

“It's just this big melting pot of people with issues,” says Lily Sullivan, devilish glee in her voice unmistakable. Sullivan is an up-and-coming Australian actor playing Miranda in the new adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock.

“Here you are in this house full of young adolescent women with all their growing pains. Then you have a disappearance and the mystery around it, and the ripple effect throughout the town. And then it explores friendship, identity, liberation, repressed sexuality…”

It’s perhaps not the Picnic at Hanging Rock with which many viewers will be familiar – Peter Weir’s subtly spellbinding 1975 film version of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel, which tells the story of three teenage students from a boarding school in rural Victoria who mysteriously vanish during a picnic at the titular rock formation on Valentine’s Day, 1900.

Weir’s film, widely regarded as a classic of the Australian cinematic renaissance of the 1970s, is stronger on atmosphere than characterisation. Vanished schoolgirl Miranda and her two friends are more “figures in a landscape” – to quote Beatrix Christian, the new adaptation’s screenwriter – than they are fully rounded human beings.

When Foxtel embarked on the process of reimagining Picnic at Hanging Rock for a new generation in this six-part miniseries, the decision was made to place a greater focus on the women and girls affected by the Valentine’s Day disappearance, using the central mystery as a prism through which to view how women were seen by society at the turn of the 20th century – and how they saw one another.

According to Christian, one of several writers for the project, that meant they were adapting Lindsay’s book anew, rather than remaking Weir’s movie.

“I suspect it will be a generational thing, but for many of us the film was kind of a defining moment in Australian cinema, so we knew there was a weird poisoned-chalice aspect to it,” she says.

“They got a group of people into the writers’ room, and all of us initially had this sense of ‘Why do we need to make this again when the original is so fantastic?’”

But they knew that there are some stories so powerful they can be adapted and interpreted in numerous ways.

“And Joan Lindsay’s novel has a timeless quality,” says Christian. “The book is actually weirdly contemporary – she mucks around with time, and it’s written almost as a true-crime report. It’s very much ahead of its time in a lot of ways, so there was never any sense it wasn’t relevant. And because there were a lot of women in the writers’ room, there was a sense we wanted to get to know the girls at the school.”

Sullivan, recently seen in the Romper Stomper TV series, agrees, praising Lindsay’s book as “weird, psychedelic craziness from the 60s”.

“I think it’s time to retell it,” she says. “The Brits do that so well, retelling and reimagining and reinterpreting their well-loved stories, everything from Shakespeare to Sherlock, because they respect it and revere it.

“And I know most of the girls playing the younger characters hadn’t seen the movie, so I do feel like it has skipped a generation. They probably wouldn’t pick up Peter Weir’s film unless they’re into brilliant filmmaking. Now that it is being retold in this new way, they can then discover the film. That’s exciting.”

Just as exciting is the artistically bold and thematically provocative approach the makers of this 2018 version of Picnic at Hanging Rock have taken with their adaptation. That ranges from Sullivan’s interpretation of Miranda – a strongwilled, charismatic counterpoint to the somewhat enigmatic, ethereal portrayal of the character by Anne-Louise Lambert in the 75 film – to the extensive backstory given to boarding school headmistress Hester Appleyard, played here by Game of Thrones star Natalie Dormer.

One could say that the predominance of women on both sides of the camera – the credited screenwriters, three producers, two of the three directors and most of the core cast are female – has plenty to do with that.

“I think there were more women employed by this production than any other last year – writers, directors, executives,” says Christian. “I think it worked well for our purposes.”

“The show is a total force for women, and so many different kinds of women in so many different roles,” adds Sullivan. “And it’s not that it now has to be a female-dominated crew… But it’s wonderful to be part of this feminist wave, and to make a show that is set in the 1900s but still feels scarily relevant in a lot of ways. The conversation in the world today about women finding the strength to speak up, we felt we were echoing and exploring that in a time that was not long ago but very, very different for women.”

Words by Guy Davis

Picnic at Hanging Rock premieres 6 May on Foxtel station Showcase

This article originally appeared in the Generation Hope edition of The Big Issue (#561).