It is extremely gutsy to take on an adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel Picnic at Hanging Rock when there is already Peter Weir’s perfect 1975 film. But not long into Amazon’s 2018 revamp of the Gothic classic does it become clear that the show’s intention isn’t to simply bring this story of four schoolgirls who seemingly vanish into Australia’s “Hanging Rock” one day in 1900 to the small screen, but to create something new entirely. And what was once a sort of minimalist, quiet horror story turns into an unfortunately cluttered, trippy mystery.
Whereas Peter Weir shot his adaptation in sun-kissed shades of baby pink and gold, his lens often obstructed by the lush wildlife of the rock’s terrain, the six-episode Picnic (premiering on Amazon on May 25) is highly saturated, with montages set to rock music. Nothing about this television show is ethereal, but particularly not its characters. Miranda (Lily Sullivan) is reimagined as a headstrong feminist, who speaks of marriage with disgust and wishes to throw her corset to the wind. “I don’t want to be elegant, I’m not a horse being groomed for auction,” she remarks to Irma, a seemingly ditzy but secretly deep socialite (Samara Weaving). Marion (Madeleine Madden) is now Indigenous, subjected to racist ridicule from Mrs. Appleyard, and the close friendship between Miranda and Sara (Inez Currõ), no longer a painfully shy outcast, is far more substantial than that of the original movie.
The biggest character development comes from Mrs. Appleyard, played with a fantastic, terrifying cruelty by Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer, who says “bring back my girls” so many times you might think you’re watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. Aged down to be not that much older than the girls she teaches, she is given an extensive backstory to account for how on Earth she managed to pay for the college in cash immediately (hint: it’s not a pleasant nor entirely legal backstory). Appleyard moves from being a snide Regina George-level mean girl (“Yellow? Interesting,” she remarks at another girl’s dress) to something closer to evil, as she bloodily tortures Sara and Miranda for being rebellious misfits. “I’ve met your true father,” Appleyard says at one point, chillingly, to Sara before slamming the door shut on her tower cell. “He has horns and a tail and eyes that look the wrong way, and feet with little yellow hooves.”
What’s perhaps most striking about the new Picnic At Hanging Rock is how distractingly, unbelievably horny it is. There has always been a lesbian subtext to Sara’s clingy relationship with Miranda (“You must learn to love someone else apart from me, Sara,” she tells her before departing for the picnic), and the new adaptation runs with that vibe in every direction it possibly can. Miranda, Irma, and Marion pile on top of each other to lock lips in bedrooms and rose gardens; the boys who help look for the girls, Michael and Albert, share something more physical than a simple male friendship; and even a vintage dildo comes into play in the series. There is an entire episode dedicated to Marion and Miss McCraw (who’s much younger in this version, in case you were wondering) lounging around the empty property on holiday, smoking cigarettes and reading The Turn of the Screw, and the sexual tension is aggressive. “Fuck already!” I want to scream. “You’re both going to disappear into a haunted rock!!!”
The sexy sheen, the transformation of Lindsay’s characters into vocally independent women, are all examples of how this new Picnic seeks to magnify and amplify the oppression of the Appleyard College girls. The disappearance of the girls into the Hanging Rock during that idyllic Valentine’s Day picnic was mysterious even with Lindsay’s posthumously published final chapter, and its vagueness always seemed to speak to a larger commentary on the restrictions Victorian society placed on women. The teachers of the college and policemen obsess over the fact that the lost women may have removed their corsets and clothing in the process of their disappearance and the assumption that men must have raped or murdered the girls was reflective of a culture that couldn’t imagine women going anywhere unsupervised. There was also an unspoken history looming over the rock in that it was originally owned by Aboriginal tribes, and thus the girls’ ascent into its jagged terrain, clad in their pristine white dresses, is weighted with a history of colonization.
Rather than let viewers come to their own conclusions about the meaning of the rock, and the girls’ intentions for climbing it, the new Picnic At Hanging Rock lays it on too thick. Everything is amplified to the extreme: the sensuality, the violence, the suffocating symbolism of all those corsets and stockings. One character even dodges a sexual assault in the first episode. And while Dormer might give a fantastic performance as Appleyard, the focus on her twisted backstory and her heightened abuse turns her into a lead villain who feels larger than the entire production. You get the sense that the new adaptation was reworked to respond to a contemporary demand for “strong female characters” (you know the kind—they’re always described as “badass”) rather than letting the quiet, creepy Hanging Rock work its strange magic on a group of vulnerable girls.