Joan Lindsay’s novel “Picnic at Hanging Rock” was a mere 212 pages when first printed in 1967. Peter Weir’s 1975 movie of the same name clocked in under two hours (115 minutes). Both have been praised for their mysterious takes on the story of four women who disappear in the Australian bush — the novel for framing the events as a true story (it wasn’t) and the film for its challenging, open-ended conclusion, among other attributes for both.
The new TV adaptation builds on many of these same traits, but a funny thing happens when you try to elongate a surreal horror story by providing explicit details: It gets boring. In extending the length to a six-hour limited series, Amazon’s 2018 version loses much of the original works’ imaginative appeal even while providing added agency to its characters. Each of the key students at Mrs. Hester Appleyard’s (Natalie Dormer) school (as well as the headmistress herself) are better defined and given explicit motivations. But the structure — first set up their disappearance, then provide context for each character via flashback — prohibits any emotional investment in the missing girls, or at least enough emotional investment to sustain interest beyond the first episode.
The new “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is too long, too slow, and too torn between presenting an ethereal dreamlike world filled with symbolism of repressed sexuality and providing a concrete mystery to be solved. It wants to have it both ways and ends up succeeding at neither. The mystery is too stretched out and the setting’s surreal beauty is too often spoiled by narrative anchors to reality.
The plot remains simple and largely unchanged from past iterations: Four girls go missing from a group picnic, and a search begins to find them. The major change is that there’s more than one mystery presented. Instead of focusing only on the search, the new “Picnic” puts an awkward emphasis on Dormer’s main character: Hester Appleyard is introduced as a widow who moves to Australia in order to start over. She purchases a new home, which she’ll turn into a college for young women. Yet as she walks through the estate with her realtor, cleverly using his own preconceptions about women to get a better price, viewers are immediately made to question her veracity. She’s not a widow; she’s merely pretending in order to get what she needs.
On the one hand, that kind of deceit can work in parallel to what Lindsay built in the novel. Hester makes for a fine unreliable narrator, but there are two problems with her story: First, her potential doesn’t pay off. Writers Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison build Mrs. Appleyard (not her real name) into an intriguing figure whose backstory is slowly filled in over the course of the series, but the end result is too simple relative to the buildup and the series’ other puzzle, which leads us to issue No. 2: Hester’s story doesn’t vibe with the main mystery (what happened to the girls).
Even her introduction is misguided: The one-take, with the camera positioned behind her as she walks through the house for the first time, puts the emphasis on her character’s mystery when that’s not, in the long run, the point. In its original form, “Picnic” was never really about Hester, so much as what she represented: a Victorian mentality of strict discipline and obedience. She taught her girls to be subservient while they long for rebellion, whether that’s independence from their teachers or expressing themselves sexually.
All that still applies in the new version, but the emphasis on Hester’s agency can sometimes contradict what she’s meant to symbolize. She feels more real and better understood, but that’s not necessarily beneficial when her story is so simple and runs counter to the many surreal elements of the story. Similar hiccups occur as other characters’ backgrounds are fleshed out, but those aren’t as detrimental to the experience because they’re not as prominent. (One wonders if the writers felt the need to beef up the lead role in order to attract a talent like Dormer, or if it was merely another way to reach the six-hour mark.)
The new “Picnic” (like Weir’s movie) is absolutely gorgeous. Colors pop and the environment can be felt at all times. Sometimes the directors and editors overwork themselves while trying to elicit a dreamlike state, instead of trusting their setting, but those efforts also serve to break up monotonous plots. Something has to stir up the audience, be it the flashy pink title cards or wildly spinning frames.
In the end, neither the lush looks nor committed performances are enough to overcome the balance issues and general bloat. “Picnic at Hanging Rock” isn’t a rewarding experience, so much as it features rewarding details, and after multiple iterations of the story, it’s clear those details are better appreciated in a tighter package.
“Picnic at Hanging Rock” is streaming now on Amazon Prime.