Picnic At Hanging Rock - a reflection on the many adaptations, by Jennifer McDonald

Comment on this blog to go into the running for a pre-loved copy of 'The Picnic At Hanging Rock'. It was 1975 when the movie adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 book Picnic at Hanging Rock  was released.  I was in year nine at a straight-laced Presbyterian-Methodist private school for girls in Brisbane and I did not read Lindsay’s book before seeing the film.

Directed by Peter Weir, Picnic at Hanging Rock lodged quite firmly in my psyche. Thanks for this must go in part to the haunting, wood pipe soundtrack, surely designed to buzz inside one’s head like flies around, well, a summertime picnic. I also related to this film and the book on a subliminal level. While both are set in 1900 in rural Victoria, the stitched-up, rule-based existence of the students at Appleyard’s College for Young Ladies resonated with me even in 1975. References to not removing one’s gloves until well out of the public eye and having stockings as part of the official school uniform (in a Brisbane summer no less) were remarkably on the money.

It wasn’t until I heard that Foxtel had produced a six-part miniseries that I ventured to my local bookstore to pick up a copy of Joan Lindsay’s acclaimed novel.  Until this point I’d always believed the story to be based on fact, dramatically enhanced of course - but a real story nonetheless.  Then I read Lindsay’s own preface stating,

‘Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.’

Hardly seems important?  Let’s just explore that for a minute. There is a reasonable expectation when one starts reading the book, or viewing the original movie, that some insight might be proffered into the mysterious disappearance of three students and one governess of Appleyard College on Valentine’s Day in 1900. Both Joan Lindsay’s book and Peter Weir’s film drip with intrigue and menace, leveraging to the hilt the possibility that this unsolved mystery is based in fact.

However, coming late to the read and discovering direct from the author’s mouth that Picnic at Hanging Rock is most likely a work of fiction, I now think Joan Lindsay was right to say it hardly matters. Whether ‘true’ or not, the mystery disappearance at Hanging Rock really only serves as the backdrop to Lindsay’s often biting observations of (a) the class system in a young nation flush with gold rush cash, (b) the disciplining and grooming of ‘young ladies’ that passed for education at the time; (c) and the ability, or lack thereof, of society in general to deal with the unresolved.

I thought at first that Joan Lindsay was having a shot at the English establishment and, some might say, its undue influence on a far away land coming into its own identity.  Take this description of the ambitious Mrs Appleyard, Headmistress of Appleyard College for example:

‘Whether the Headmistress…had any previous experience in the educational field was never divulged.  It was unnecessary. With her high-piled greying pompadour and ample bosom, as rigidly controlled and disciplined as her private ambitions, the cameo portrait of her late husband flat on her respectable chest, the stately stranger looked precisely what the parents expected of an English headmistress. And as looking the part is well known to be more than half the battle in any form of business enterprise….the College, from the very first day, was a success; and by the end of the first year, showing a gratifying profit.’

Here’s another example - an exchange between Colonel Fitzhubert and his fresh-off-the-boat nephew, Michael, with regard to a local young lady of good breeding (if not good looks) who’s in the crosshairs as a potential match for the young English gentleman.

(The Colonel says) ‘I can’t imagine why you’re so critical of poor Angela.’

(To which Michael responds) ‘I don’t mean to be critical. It’s entirely my fault that I find Miss Sprack – how can I express it – too English.’

‘What’s this poppycock about being too English?’ asked the Colonel, emerging from the shrubbery with the spaniels. ‘How the deuce can a person be too English?’

But the toffs aren’t the only beneficiaries of Lindsay’s humorous sarcasm. Edith, the hapless and ungainly schoolgirl who managed not to disappear along with three of her classmates on picnic day, also cops a serve:

The Headmistress, aware of Edith’s limited intelligence and unlimited obstinacy, plus a possible mild concussion, thought the expedition a waste of time…

Then there’s Lindsay’s bordering on cynical assessment of the friendship that develops between Albert Crundall the stable-hand and the aforementioned young English gentleman, Mike Fitzhubert:

To see them now – Albert loose of limb in rolled-up shirtsleeves and moleskin trousers. Michael stiff in garden party attire with a carnation in his buttonhole – they looked an ill-assorted pair. ‘Mike’s all right,’ Albert had told his friend the cook. ‘Him and me are mates.’ And so in the finest sense of that much abused word, they were. The fact that Albert, who had just tried his friend’s grey topper on this own tousled bullet head, looked like a music hall turn; and that Mike in Albert’s wide brimmed greasy sundowner might have stepped from the pages of The Magnet or the Boy’s Own Paper, meant less than nothing.

Apart from the unexplained disappearances narrative, the next most intriguing theme of Picnic at Hanging Rock is Lindsay’s exploration of how fear and wild speculation spreads through the local community and beyond with the speed of a bushfire.

As always in matters of surpassing interest, those who knew nothing either at first or even second hand were the most emphatic at expressing their opinions; which are well known to have a way of turning into established facts overnight.

Despite Mrs Appleyard’s attempts to keep a lid on gossip and hearsay emanating from the school, the ‘College Mystery’ soon hits the newspapers at home and abroad. Soon, wealthy and influential parents start pulling their daughters from Appleyard College, threatening the very existence of the Headmistress’s lucrative undertaking.

Michael Fitzhubert, instrumental in locating the sole survivor of the vanished party, Irma Leopold, is clearly traumatised and haunted by the whole experience. The Hanging Rock legacy may well ruin his chances of a creating a new life in Australia, free from the shackles and expectations of upper class England.

Indeed, after Irma Leopold is rescued from Hanging Rock the search to unearth further clues about the fate of the other missing women is expanded to cover ‘likely and unlikely places in the locality’:

Drains, hollow logs, culverts, waterholes, an abandoned pigsty where someone had seen a light moving last Sunday. At the bottom of an old mineshaft in the Black Forest a terrified schoolboy swore he had seen a body; and so he had – the carcass of a decomposing heifer.

20180515 - picnic-at-hanging-rock 2018 coverAnd now we have the 2018 manifestation of Picnic at Hanging Rock thanks to Foxtel.  I’m two episodes into this patently well produced if a little over-dramatised six-ep series. Foxtel’s marketing bumph describes this as a ‘trailblazing reimagining’ of Lindsay’s iconic tale. It’s certainly proving to be a darker, sexier and more ominous take on the original work, complete with wildly embellished and rather twisted back stories of key characters. As if Lindsay’s 1967 story didn’t provide enough intrigue on its own!

For this reason, drawing comparisons between the book and this new TV series are nigh-on useless. It makes more sense to me to compare the contemporary Picnic at Hanging Rock to its 1975 movie predecessor, which was largely faithful to the narrative of the book.

I’m no Margaret Pomeranz but I’d venture to say that the 2018 version can best be described as the screen equivalent of fan-fiction. As such, it completely and utterly swats any vestiges of speculation that Lindsay’s enduring mystery story might ever have been rooted in fact.

Comment on this blog to go in the running to score a pre-loved copy of The Picnic At Hanging Rock.

Big Little Lies & Role Reversal

This isn’t going to be some whinge about how the TV mini-series isn’t faithful to the book, although there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Big Little Lies isn’t. The location change to Monterrey instead of Sydney is a shining example.

To my mind, this change of scenery tranquilises the severity of the domestic violence, school bullying, adultery, sexual assault and ultimately murderous themes of both works.  It’s not that I can’t believe these things actually happen in Sydney – they surely do - it’s more the fact that we Australians are spoon-fed an unending stream of American productions that focus on this type of darkness (think acronyms here - SVU, NCIS, CSI).  Heck, even the news of the latest real-life gun rampage seems to confirm that America is a location where this sort of stuff happens with vastly more regularity than here. I believe setting the book in Sydney was Moriarty’s master stroke. It’s dark twists and turns were somehow more shocking because of their usually sunny location.

But I digress.  I did say this wasn’t going to be a diatribe on the differences and merits of the book over the TV version and it isn’t.  No – what really surprised me was my reaction to the real and imagined age disparity in the casting of the two couples central to the story. These are Nicole Kidman as Celeste and her on-screen husband Alexander Skarsgård as Perry; and Madeline’s Reese Witherspoon and her on-screen husband Ed, played by a much younger-looking (but actually not younger than Reese) Adam Scott.

Normally I don’t care about those often awkward, age-disparate on-screen pairings that require a giant leap of faith on the part of the viewer.  God knows we’ve seen enough of them. Who could forget Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Key Largo, Woody Allen and Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford in Up Close and Personal, Gwyneth Paltrow and Michael Douglas in A Perfect Murder and even our own Nicole with Sam Neill in Dead Calm!

I also have no problem with actresses like Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon as executive producers, securing rights to books like Moriarty’s Big Little Lies with meaty female characters and then casting themselves in those plum roles in the screen version. Why not run the racket so you can start rigging it when the game’s been stacked against you for decades?  Actors of the male persuasion have been doing that for years (think Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Bradley Cooper and more recently Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, producers of the acclaimed Night Manager).

More power to the women, I reckon.  But if I thought this empowerment might translate into less jolting age pairings of major characters, in the case of Big Little Lies, I was clearly mistaken.

In isolation, Nicole Kidman is ideally cast as the gorgeous, intelligent and wealthy Celeste, she of the seemingly ‘perfect life’.  That is until you put her next to her on-screen husband Perry, played by Alexander Skarsgård. While he is only nine years Kidman’s junior, alas (as beautiful as she is) Nicole looks so much older than Alexander.

Neither of them are miscast but their pairing made me focus more on how they looked together than how they played the parts of two people at the centre of one of the most disturbing concepts of the book and the show. That bothers me.

Then we come to Reese Witherspoon’s character, Madeline, who’s on-screen second husband Adam Scott (as Ed) is actually three years older than her and yet the pairing still doesn’t seem to work.  This may be due to the fact that, in the book version of the story, Madeline is a divorcée previously married to Nathan (played by James Tupper in the TV show) who, BTW, looks more aligned to Madeline in the age-stakes.

Maybe Adam Scott’s Ed is meant to look younger than Witherspoon’s Madeline in the TV version of the story because she is supposed to look like someone who’s been married before and is, perhaps, a little older than a previously unmarried first wife might be. But that can’t be right. As noted earlier, TV show narratives don’t always stick to the storyline of the books they’re based on. So, I guess we can rule that out as a reason for the apparent (but not real) age difference between Ed and Madeline in Big Little Lies.

Ironically, Reese Witherspoon is no stranger to this age-disparity thing. In 2004 she played the lead role of Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. At the ripe old age of 27, Witherspoon was cast as the mother of Robert Pattison, aged 17 at the time.  The scenes between the two were cut from the final version of the film, which is probably fortunate as it didn’t impede a second outing for this pair in Water for Elephants in 2011. This time, Reese, Robert and their 10-year age difference, were cast as lovers.

I know what you’re thinking – I’m too stuck on the ironies of this age thing in Big Little Lies. Please believe me when I say I really don’t care.  Why should it even bother me that women characters are, these days, more often being paired with younger men when so often, it’s the other way around?

I guess is comes back to my need for credibility in on-screen drama – credibility that is underpinned by appropriate casting that helps me suspend my disbelief about the fictional storyline. For some reason this is particularly so when the screen story is based on a book I’ve already read. I fully accept that the screenplay I watch will not mirror the exact storyline of the book for such reasons as timeframe, nuance or plot intricacy that impedes ‘watchability’. I’m happy to be surprised, delighted even, by the accurate screen representation of people and things I loved in the book, as well as the adjustments and additions to the print storyline that make the viewing more compelling.

But sometimes, little things like age-disparity in the casting (perceived or otherwise) seriously undermines my ability to believe in the screen story and indeed, my interest in what happens to the characters themselves. Instead of getting lost in the fascinating depths of Celeste and Perry’s complex and violent relationship, I find myself pre-occupied with an entirely superficial and yet very distracting age difference.

And instead of applauding Kidman and Witherspoon for successfully subverting the culture of man/girl on-screen couplings in Hollywood, I confess to being a little disappointed. As executive producers of Big Little Lies, couldn’t these acclaimed actresses have demonstrated just a bit more finesse in the casting department?

Click here to buy your copy of ‘Big Little Lies’ by Liane Moriarty from Booktopia.

Big Little Lies

I began reading Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies for my monthly book club. I had heard the Australian bestseller was due to be converted into a mini-series and was determined to read it before the release date. I’ve always been one of those people who cannot be satisfied by book to screen adaptations, there’s always something I can fault, be it the tone, the characters or the script. I needed to read Big Little Lies to form my basis for future criticism.

The book itself has received wide acclaim, published in 2014, Big Little Lies reached the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list in the first week of publication, a first for an Australian author. The novel went on to win the Davitt Award for Adult Fiction in 2015 and in the same year won the ABIA General Fiction Book of the Year award. The hype around this book was becoming unbelievable and, with a mix between curiosity and a desire to support this Australian author cast into the limelight, I dove into its pages.

For me, Big Little Lies was the typical airport novel. Well-written and engaging, yes, but this book was little more than a literary palette-cleanser, the type of book you read as a filler between the big ones. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely enjoyed reading Big Little Lies. I finished it in four days and towards the big reveal, the book was basically glued to my hand. Moriarty did a superb job at creating tension, something so many authors seem to struggle with, and she truly had me engaged as a reader from start to finish.

However, despite the engaging story and Moriarty’s wonderful creation of dramatic tension, I found myself wanting more from this book. Big Little Lies is chic-lit to the extreme, and while this genre definitely assisted with the easy-reading style and humour of the novel, at points it almost felt like watching an episode of Desperate Housewives. So many massive issues are addressed in this novel, domestic abuse, being at the forefront, and it often felt as if those issues were somewhat diminished or simplified to fit into the narrative that Moriarty had created.

Nevertheless, I’m approaching the release of the Big Little Lies series with enthusiasm. Reese Witherspoon is the perfect casting for Madeline, and I can’t wait to see her take on the sparkly persona that I so loved in the novel. Nicole Kidman is an obvious choice as Celeste and as an Australian actor who’s found fame in America (a bit like Moriarty herself) I’m sure she’ll be adept at transplanting a Sydney-based story to a California equivalent scenario. Shailene Woodley (The Descendants and the Divergent series) seems an excellent casting decision as Jane and I’ve long-fostered a soft spot for the beautiful Alexander Skarsgård, ever since his performance as Eric in the HBO adaptation of True Blood.

Overall, I felt Moriarty did an excellent job injecting humour into a book that is essentially about murder and domestic violence and I’m definitely interested to see if and how this humour comes across in the TV adaptation of Big Little Lies.

The first episode of the Big Little Lies mini-series is set to be released tonight at 8:30pm on Showcase.