When writer Beatrix Christian and director Larysa Kondracki first set out to adapt Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” there was a sense of “Is it necessary to tell this story again?” In fact, Kondracki says, “the press protested me and were constantly saying, ‘Why do this?'”
After all, the story about four schoolgirls who disappear during a picnic in the 1900s was legendary among the Australian audience, and it had already been turned into a story for the screen by Peter Weir (in 1975) — a project both women say was “perfect on its own.”
But after reading the book again, both felt it was necessary to tell this story again — albeit this time for the smaller screen — because they had a chance to go deeper with characters and bring a quintessential Australian tale into the international world.
“The book is really ahead of its time. It’s kind of got true crime, but it’s also a story about the people left behind after these girls go missing. So in that sense, it’s similar to shows like ‘Broadchurch’ or ‘The Killing,’ where you’re actually studying the people who have been affected by crime — although in this instance, nobody knows if a crime has actually been committed,” Christian says. “It comes with really interesting details and full of information that of course there wasn’t time to go into in the film. We all wanted to get to know the girls more.”
Christian ended up writing a six-episode adaptation that goes deeper into their motivations. “I think we were interested in the fact that nobody in that world assumed they had any volition. In other words, because they were schoolgirls, they assumed that something had happened to them — nobody ever thought ‘Did they do something themselves?'” she points out. “It was a sort of fascinating thing because if three or four girls went missing now from school, a [quick] thought might be ‘What might they have done?’ But back then they were seen as passive — an object that something would have happened to. So we wanted to explore who they seemed in the book and unpack that a little bit.”
Then Kondracki came aboard and brought a very specific vision for it, that of an “enchanted chiller.” She was inspired by the work of Stanley Kubrick and the movie “Heathers.”
Kondracki admits that when she first started watching screen tests of the actresses who would go on to play the schoolgirls, she thought they “were too pretty” and was concerned about grounding the story. She credits her makeup team, who stood up in a meeting and told her she needed to reexamine her relationship to beauty, with not only helping her push past some initial trepidations but also finding “every girl’s beauty within the story.”
“You do have the brain, the jock, the beauty, the funny one — but those girls disappear and you’ll see in episodes 2 and 3, they merge; they become a single force. And that, to me, is hopeful because I certainly don’t think I’m done growing or evolving as a human. It was a really interesting experience for me, the show. You’re reconciling a lot within yourself,” she says. “What starts off as ‘this girl is exactly this,’ they all learn from each other and they become one, and I think that’s inspiring.”
Even Hester Appleyard (Natalie Dormer), the tyrannical school mistress, is a character in which Kondracki finds inspiration.
“She’s just trying to give them what she didn’t have and trying to learn how do you stay true to yourself? That is the message of the show,” she says. Her theory about Appleyard, a woman who immersed herself in the school to run from her past but finds she cannot fully escape it after all, is “that this whole thing takes place in her head and these are all of the different types of girls she could have been.”
Whether it was the original book, the 1975 film, or now the six-part limited series, “Picnic At Hanging Rock” has always had a surreal quality that mashes and bends genres and allows for theories such as Kondracki’s to exist alongside vastly different ones. One of the elements both Christian and Kondracki wanted to keep intact in their version was that sense of ambiguity — all while keeping in mind how much time the audience is investing in the show.
“When you’re making television you’ve got a lot of competing agendas. I think the challenge is to tell enough story but not too much,” Christian says. “It’s a mix of imaginative viewing, I guess, to keep the mystery because you want everybody to have their own theory but at the same time it’s six episodes, and so the balancing act is making it feel worth spending [so many] hours with these people. It’s a really delicate thing.”
While Lindsay’s book originally ended with a note saying the reader could decide whether or not this is a true story, she later when on to write a final chapter to offer more of a conclusion. But for Kondracki, it is the “choose your own adventure” spirit of the story that she most wanted to convey. The key, she says, is making sure there is “an emotional conclusion” for the audience, even while still hoping there are some details viewers will “argue over.”
Including her theory about Appleyard imagining it all.
“Picnic at Hanging Rock” is available to stream May 25 on Amazon.