Foxtel has recently announced that they will be “re-imagining” the Australian classic movie Picnic at Hanging Rock as a television series. Some commentators are wondering why would a remake of a classic Australian movie even be necessary. After all, how often has the remake been better than the original?
The original movie was made in 1975, a mystery drama based on Joan Lindsay’s book of the same name. It follows the mysterious adventures of girls from Appleyard College, a private girl’s school at Woodend in Victoria. They visit the mysterious Hanging Rock, a geological feature not far from Woodend. The girls experience unexplained events, and one of the girls goes missing.
When the book was first published in 1967, some of the locals were curious as to whether the events bore any relationship to actual events. The short answer is no, they aren’t. The long answer is somewhat more intriguing. The book is written as a true story, which led many people to assume that it was in fact, true. It is a delightful work of fiction which achieved cult status. Several clues point to the fact, firstly, that Valentine’s Day 1900, which is claimed to be a Saturday in the book was, in fact a Wednesday. Appleyard College was based on Joan Lindsay’s own school in Melbourne. None of the people in the book actually existed.
And it’s here that I must declare an interest. My grandmother’s cousin did some family research and discovered that almost every local from Woodend and district are in some way related to our family. Our roots there are long and deep. My uncle still owns a farm not far from “The Rock”. My grandfather was the guardian of Hanging Rock for 25 years and my grandmother ran the cafe there for 20 years. They were both present when the movie was filmed. My grandmother told me that when the actresses were filming the climb, in the heat of summer, they would come to the cafe, lie on the cool concrete floor to cool down, as they had to wear layers of petticoats as part of their costume.
Part of the film was shot on my grandfather’s farm, currently owned by my uncle. This was because the real area around the Rock has been turned into picnic grounds and was not the wild looking bushland that the director, Peter Weir, was looking for. This is the same uncle that disrupted some of the shots by walking through the background, much to the frustration of some of the actresses, who were tired of eating cream cake, take after take.
Hanging rock is a geological formation that formed when viscous magma intruded into the surrounding rocks, millions of years ago. It then cooled in this vent, leaving an intrusion of hard rock into the softer substrate. The surrounding land eroded, leaving the rock, and several others in the area protruding from the surrounding landscape. There is nothing haunted, mysterious or supernatural about the Rock. A possible exception is the peculiar grunting noises made by the local koalas at night.
Which is not to say that people have not died climbing Hanging Rock. People have visited and have fallen from the edifice, the most recent in 2002, when a 13 year old from Sunbury lost his life falling from the Rock. My grandmother did tell me of an particular platform where someone fell and died from in the 1980s. Exactly to the day, she claimed, another person fell from the same platform 85 years earlier. But then grandma did like to tell a good story. There is also the example of the Lost boys of Daylesford, where three young boys lost their lives lost in the bush nearby. But Daylesford is some distance from Hanging Rock.
Picnic at Hanging rock is an excellent example of the pastoral genre in literature, where the Australian landscape plays as much a part of the story as the characters themselves. The pastoral genre explores landscape existing at the boundaries of civilization and nature, themes of society and solitude. It is an Australian classic, so if you get the chance, it makes for an excellent, if somewhat disturbing read. The movie is also very spooky.
The original ending of the book was not published by Joan Lindsay when the book was published, but was released some months after her death, at her request. She died in 1984, in Frankston, Melbourne.
Hanging Rock hosts two racing events per year, one on New Year’s Day and the other on Australia Day. I have memories of the family gathering to make sandwiches on Race Day for the cafe due to the huge influx of hungry visitors. All hands on deck for the busiest day of the year. My favourite memory, however, was of the lolly jars. Grandma had 30 lolly jars stocked with candies and jellies, each at one and two cents each. It was delightful for visiting children to walk along the multitude of jars requesting one lolly from each.