Amazon’s new Picnic at Hanging Rock mini-series will be most recognizable as an adaptation and expansion of the classic 1975 film by director Peter Weir. Weir’s movie is widely considered to be a near-perfect treatment of its subject, dreamlike and striking and stubbornly resistant of easy readings. But the new mini-series owes just as much, if not more, to Joan Lindsay’s original 1967 novel, and it’s also patently invested in becoming its own thing, filling out backstories and turning the story’s previously implicit, sketchy subtexts into fully developed narrative avenues. Here’s a list of the major changes made to Picnic at Hanging Rock among book, movie, and mini-series.
When you stretch a narrative once contained in a film across six episodes of a mini-series, you end up with more. That’s obvious, of course, but it’s also a fundamentally different way of approaching Lindsay’s novel. In Weir’s film, the story about four women who disappear on a huge rock formation in the Australian bush is ambiguous; your eye spends nearly as much time just watching the young women slowly climb up the rock formation as it does following the detective’s investigation into their disappearance afterward. It’s a movie made up of arresting, unreal moments, and it’s much less interested in digging into quotidian details like witnesses or alibis.
The new mini-series is just as interested in the surreal, unexplained, and potentially otherworldly sensations as both previous versions of Picnic at Hanging Rock. But like Lindsay’s novel, the mini-series anchors the events on the Rock to a lot more stuff. In Weir’s film, the police investigation is mostly a shrug. In Lindsay’s telling, the outside world encroaches on Appleyard College and the Rock in a completely different way: The threat of notoriety in the press looms much larger; the precarity of Mrs. Appleyard’s finances and reputation plays a much bigger role; and her detective figure spends much more time pursuing possibilities, gathering witness accounts, trying to understand the timeline, and generally behaving like someone actually investigating a mystery. The novel, like the mini-series, treats the police investigation as a serious effort, and it creates a much stronger impression that the rest of the world is invading Mrs. Appleyard’s intensely private, cloistered space.
The mini-series’ largest deviation from the previous Picnic at Hanging Rock stories is the way it fills in character backstories. In Lindsay’s novel, Mrs. Appleyard is an English widow who’s come to Australia to support herself, and the narrator spends a lot of time diving in and out of Mrs. Appleyard’s mind. The reader has more opportunities to consider Mrs. Appleyard’s frustrations, her sympathies (and lack thereof) toward the College and its students, and her intense suspicion of any outside eyes prying into her business. This version of Mrs. Appleyard is a restrictive holdover from a Victorian era, overcompensating for her own scholastic insecurities by instituting rigid boundaries on herself and everyone in her power. Weir’s movie strips most of this detail away, leaving Mrs. Appleyard as an English widow with a drinking problem and leaving any other allusions to her past as largely hazy and undefined.
In both Lindsay’s book and in Weir’s film, the students are mostly ciphers. Everything we learn about Miranda, Irma, Marion, and Greta McCraw, the math teacher who disappears with them, arrives in the first few chapters of the novel. Once they disappear onto the Rock, that’s all we get. They’re spirited young women mysteriously drawn to the top of a strange rock formation, and then they’re gone.
The mini-series builds significantly more agency and backstory for both the students and their power-hungry headmistress. Most notably, it takes the homosocial subtexts of a clique of girls at a private girls’ college and leans all the way in. There’s much more attention to Miranda’s relationship with the younger student Sara Waybourne, whose devotion to her becomes even more like a crush. There’s also an entirely new, explicitly romantic relationship between Marion and Greta McCraw. In general, the new series is much more invested in expressing the complicated, slippery, potent intimacy of intense female relationships, especially those that slide between platonic devotion, jealousy, and sexual attraction.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Appleyard is an entirely different character in the mini-series. Where both Weir’s film and Lindsay’s novel show us an older woman — a widow, who’s carved out a new life for herself and is now protecting it zealously — this version of Mrs. Appleyard is explicitly subversive. Weir and Lindsay suggest that Mrs. Appleyard’s husband died before the action on the Rock, and she was forced to create a new life to support herself. In the mini-series, Mrs. Appleyard has real agency. She’s not tragically booted out of her past life; she purposely escapes it. Her mysterious past is apparent even from the opening scenes of the first episode, as Natalie Dormer’s Mrs. Appleyard switches from a posh accent in her spoken language to a lower-class Cockney for her sardonic voice-overs. (From there, her history is revealed slowly through flashbacks and a new story about an enigmatic soapbox containing some clue to her past.) Unlike in either previous version, this Mrs. Appleyard is creating herself, and she gives herself power by establishing oppressive power dynamics at the school so that she can be at the top.
As for those evocative scenes of Mrs. Appleyard whipping Miranda’s hands, and of her friends treating her wounds? None of that is in the book, nor are the repeated images of the missing trio of students sleeping together in an intimate, suggestive heap. The mini-series makes the buried, oblique implications of Lindsay’s novel — of women escaping crushing social expectations, of familiarity among girls, of the total disconnection between men and women, of women policing each other — a much more visually explicit part of the story, even if it’s still dreamy and largely unspoken.
Since its publication, the appeal of Picnic at Hanging Rock has had a lot to do with its stubbornly abrupt, unexplained ending. In her first draft, Lindsay included a final chapter that explained everything, and it was excised from the manuscript by her publisher. Even in the explanatory unpublished final chapter, though, Picnic at Hanging Rock resists giving easy answers. In Lindsay’s original ending, the girls and their teacher are drawn to the top of Hanging Rock by an inexplicable force, and eventually fall through a reddish pink cloud into another dimension, disappearing forever.
Weir’s film keeps many of Lindsay’s surrealist clues that the Rock is an otherworldly place: watches stop, time behaves strangely, visuals get distorted, and the whole picnic sequence has a pervasive, sleepy, dreamlike tone. But otherwise, the film elides the textual history of Lindsay’s excised last chapter entirely, just as it elides any answer about what happens to the girls.
The mini-series doesn’t take that scrubbed last chapter as text, but it’s clearly closer to the surface. To the viewer’s ear, to the eye, and for all of the picnickers in the story, things are very obviously weird on the Rock. That obviousness is both the strength and weakness of the mini-series adaptation. It draws power from turning subtext into text everywhere, and it delights in the freedom to show off so many more beautiful, disturbing, fantastic, and unnerving sides of its story. But all that extra detail becomes surplus, paradoxically diminishing the strange, self-possessed openness of the earlier versions.
So much of what’s added to the Picnic at Hanging Rock mini-series is elegant and strong. Its look, its idiosyncratic direction, its effort to turn featureless young women into fully formed characters full of desire and agency — all of it feels thoughtful and smart. But it also feels like filling out the details of a map that used to be a wide, empty space. It’s nice to know what’s out there, but once you do, it becomes something knowable and closed. It’s no longer open to your imagination.