Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Picnic at Hanging Rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock by William Ford

It took me awhile to find a good price on a copy of Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay. Despite the availability of the movie, the book is out of print in the US.

Usually when it comes to a movie based on a book, the book remains much better than it's adaptation. In the case of Picnic at Hanging Rock, the movie actually complements the book, and the book complements the movie.


The book and movie tell of a private school, Appleyard College, sending their students on a picnic to Mount Diogenes, or more commonly known as Hanging Rock, on February 14, 1900. The day is revealed to be Saturday, and of course, St. Valentine's Day.

Right off, you can tell why the author selected the location for such a story, just look at it:

At the Rock, the schoolgirls can see that they are not the only visitors, Colonel Fitzhubert and his family are also visiting, including his son, Michael, and their stablehand Albert.

The school's staff and driver discover that their watches have stopped. Some of the senior girls, Marion Quade, Irma Leopold, and the bewitching Miranda, ask if they may measure the base of the Rock, and are allowed to do so, and are joined by the school dunce Edith Horton. The girls decide to climb the Rock, and are observed briefly by Michael and Albert.

The girls converse as they climb and eventually tire. They awake, but only Edith seems to be fully aware of everything. The senior girls are in a trance-like state and continue climbing. Eventually, Edith's fear gets the better of her.

Mrs. Appleyard, the head of the College, has stayed at the college, partially because Sara Wayborne, Miranda's dearest friend at the school, has been left out of the picnic to finish her lessons. Mrs. Appleyard is surprised when the picnickers do not arrive at the time she requested, and are, in fact, very late. They return with everyone in tears and hysterics, and without the three senior girls who climbed the Rock, and Miss McCraw is missing.

Edith, Michael, and Albert are all asked by the Constable about the mysterious disappearance of Miranda, Irma, Marion, and Miss McCraw. Both Albert and Michael maintain that they only observed the girls as they passed, while Edith says she saw Miss McCraw running up the Rock as she was running down, Miss McCraw without her skirt, and that she also saw a red cloud on the Rock.

Michael is determined to do his own search for the missing girls, even though the police's searches have yielded no traces of the missing people. Albert later finds him unconscious and injured on one of the lower slopes. Michael later manages to scrawl a message to Albert, who follows it onto the Rock, and they find an unconscious Irma.

Despite the hope that Irma's recovery brings, Appleyard College begins losing students and staff right and left. The college is of course the subject of scandal now, and the head seems eager to take her frustration out on Sara, whose guardian has not been paying her fees.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is exceptionally well-written. The author gives the story a gentle pace, but it doesn't drag. The author even plays with paradoxes, which she must have been fond of. My research on her shows she didn't care about the passing of time and never kept clocks in her home.

Several people have thought that Picnic is a true story and want to discover the mystery of the disappearance and solve it once and for all. Lindsay herself didn't really say if the story was true or not. Just before the book starts, it reads:
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 to matter.

On later interviews, she said, "Some of it is, and some of it isn't." While Peter Weir was filming his movie adaptation, actress Anne Louise Lambert, who played Miranda, wandered off at Hanging Rock after a bad day of filming, in full costume. Lindsay followed her and greeted her as "Miranda," saying, "It's been so long."

Now, it was discovered that three children were found dead near Hanging Rock, but this was prior to 1900. It is also worthwhile to note that February 14, 1900 did not fall on a Saturday as it does in the book. In addition, nothing had been printed of "The College Mystery" (as the disappearance and it's effects is called in the book), nor had anyone heard of it before the book was published, which contradicts what is in the book and the subsequent film.

Thus, we may assume, the story is fictional, but definitely resounded with the author in a way known only to herself.

The story has been interpreted a number of ways, as repressed sexual expression, as nature becoming a mysterious force, and as a science fiction story.

The disappearance is the cause of many theories. Fans of the movie and the book try to come up with one, and theories have ranged from simple ones, such as the senior girls were running away from the school, getting murdered by Michael and Albert, either being aided or attacked by Miss McCraw, or rockslides or a small earthquake; to very fantastic ones, such as alien abductions, aboriginal spirits and curses, man-eating plants or monsters, transformations, or the girls and Miss McCraw were transported to another world or dimension.

As it turns out, Lindsay did write what had happened, but her publisher felt that the chapter would be best left out of the book for an unsolved mystery. In the film adaptation, no attempt was made to make an explanation.

While some thought the claim that Lindsay had written this chapter was a joke or hoax, after her death, it was published as The Secret of Hanging Rock.

The chapter follows Miranda, Marion, and Irma continuing their climb, and being joined by Miss McCraw, who they fail to recognize, who has also fallen under some sort of trance. They remove their tight corsets and throw them over a cliff, but they never hit the ground, and are left suspended in space. The four see a "hole in space," then Miss McCraw, Miranda, and Marion crawl into a small hole in the rock, transforming into odd crab-like and lizard-like shapes. Irma hesitates, and is left clawing at the rock as a boulder covers the hole.

Some people have not been satisfied with this explanation because it is so odd. It however, fits with the Dreamtime beliefs of the Australian Aborigines, where the belief is that mankind is equal to all of nature. The girls have become one with nature now, as opposed to the school, which feels out of place in it's location in the country, and the students and staff stay mainly indoors.

Now, the explanation is not what happened, but why? Of all the theories I've found online, the most intriguing is the Interrupted Fate theory: Sara Waybourne should have gone to the picnic. She was an orphan who missed her brother, who was not taken in by her guardian, Mr. Cosgrove. In the story of the book and the movie, she reveals her brother's name to be "Bertie," while Albert, the Fitzhubert's stable hand, says he has a sister named Sara who he last saw at the orphanage. It is obvious that they are indeed siblings. But as Sara did not go, their fate of being reunited (as she would have gone with Miranda and the others who were noticed by Michael and Albert, who would have recognized her) was interrupted by Mrs. Appleyard. This interruption caused a disturbance in the regular flow of Time, and also explains why the effects of the disappearance are so cruel to Mrs. Appleyard.

It would also work with why, at the end of the book (filmed for the movie, but left out of the final cut), when Mrs. Appleyard goes to Hanging Rock, she sees Sara's ghost. (Mutilated in the book, not so in the filmed footage.) Sara has finally made it to Hanging Rock, but is too late to be reunited with her brother.

Definitely a book and a movie that inspires thought. I truly enjoyed both.


Anonymous said...

In an interview, Joan Lindsay it's up to the reader to decide what happened to the missing girls. I like to think they entered the Otherworld, the land of faery, as sometimes happens in folk tales, especially those of Celtic origin. The film made out the rocks were evil and lured the girls in to their fate. Such strange rocks were made spooky in the film, but in the book they are not evil. I believe the "missing" last chapter was not by Lindsay, but is a hoax by Yvette Rousseau. It does not fit in with the book, and creates more mysteries than it solves.
If it is about the Aboriginal Dreamtime, as Rousseau claims, it is very muddled. In her book "The Murders at Hanging Rock," Rousseau gives alternative solutions, some of which are not convincing. I think Rousseau has let her imagination run away from her, reading things into the story that are not there.

Tanika said...

There is a book that actually has hundreds of possible endings, i have no idea what its called but thought you might want to know. My acting group and i are doing this play for our end of year performance. I didn't even think about dream time when i first heard the "lizard" ending, thanks for clearing that one up, Great synopsis of the story, cheers mate

Hannes Minkema said...

You should not believe that this so-called 'missing 18th chapter' was written by Joan Lindsay herself, because it probably is not. There is no material evidence whatsoever for this idea: no manuscript, no typoscript, no annotations, no notary document transferring the rights to her publisher, no 'last will' in which Lindsay says she wants the chapter published after her death.

All we have is hearsay, and more hearsay, by her editor/publisher, who made quite some money off the published "18th chapter" and the renewed interest in 'Picnic'.

My best guess is that this is a total sham. Lindsay was a fierce and vocal advocate of her novel as being conceived of and written as open-ended. She loathed the idea of there being some practical who-dunnit solution to the book. And seriously, the solution totally undermines the literary and philosophical qualities of this great novel.

So please take the 'missing 18th chapter' for what it most probably is - a sham.

David Cheshire said...

I could not agree more with Hannes Minkema's comment. My father, Frank Cheshire published the original book. He always maintained that Joan Lindsay's story was fiction and that the "missing chapter" that had been "kept" in a vault and published after her death was not written by her. He was not involved with this book and was disappointed that it was indeed published.

Anonymous said...

Yes I agree too. The books ending states only the presumed Miss Mcraw turned into a lizard like creature and Marion and Miranda had to wait for a tap before they followed. The boulder closed on Irma and she was either distressed and clawing at the rock because she could not follow and a tap never welcomed her or separated from her friends that entered a dark or a glorious parallel world. The writing suggests Miranda wasn't afraid of entering the rock as her eyes shone and was transforming. I didn't mind the ending but the narrative doesn't seem to be consistent with the original author.