Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay: Walkabout to Nowhere

You know a book’s been around for a long time when it has been published most recently by “Vintage Books.” First published in 1967 the book hints at the fact that it is based on a true story. Just after the cast of characters in the front of the book Lindsay cheekily notes: “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…” The end of the book has an extract from a Melbourne newspaper dated February 14, 1913 the anniversary of the picnic event. These two appearances in the book at the beginning and the end suggest that the book is in fact based on a true story.

The book was made into a pretty damn good film in 1975 (I guess I should review it as well) by Peter Weir and the film’s is just this side of brilliant. Moody, overbearing, suspenseful, foreboding and creepy as hell; but having said all that, the book is ten times better. I had seen the film first and fell in love with this slow-moving intense film. Today, I actually found a copy of the original book and decided to have a look. I power read this book in one setting (it is only 181 pages long)

As noted earlier, the story takes place in 1900 and it centres on a prestigious girls boarding school. The rich young ladies number 25 and have an overbearing Mrs Appleyard as Headmistress. The remainder of the staff are divvied between groundskeepers, household staff and tutors. On the 14th of February all the young ladies (but one, Sara Waybourne who is being punished) are allowed to attend Hanging Rock for a chaperoned picnic with two members of staff.

Once the girls arrive at the rock, they eat their picnic and then rest; except for three senior girls and one junior who decide to explore the towering rocks of Hanging Rock more closely. They pass another small group of picnickers and then start up the rock. By the end of the day, three of the girls are missing and one of the teaching staff has disappeared as well.

The rock’s in question.

It has been said that Ms Lindsay wrote this book in four weeks and that it originally had an additional chapter that actually explains what happened that day. It was removed at the editors request, thus making the book into an instant classic and wildly popular. Later the additional chapter was released (1987) *information courtesy of Wikipedia* and after reading the twelfth chapter, I agree with the editors initial decision; it added to the air of mystery of the story and helped to make it seem more real.

Four weeks!

Lindsay takes the incident at Hanging Rock as a catalyst that affects an entire group of people in ever-expanding waves (like a pebble after it is dropped in a pond will cause waves that reach the shore, no matter how wide the pond is) and having mostly disastrous consequences for most of those caught up in its “evil.” The book is much more in-depth in dealing with the characters and their thoughts, feelings and reactions.

It also shows how the event set in motion even more misery and tragedy than the actual happenings at Hanging Rock. For those that have only seen the movie, you will be surprised at how much deeper the book goes. I had pretty much fallen in love with the film and decided that it could never have been topped by the book.

I was incredibly, delightfully wrong.

While the book does not have the same level of intensity of the film, it has its own aura of foreboding and tension. The descriptive writing style of Joan Lindsay makes you feel the oppressive summer heat; the discomfort of all the clothes the young ladies have to endure in the name of decency and the dusty miserable conditions faced in the “bush” of the Outback in Australia.

I literally could not turn the pages fast enough (I know that I have said that before, but hand on heart, it’s true) and when the ending came to its inevitable conclusion I sighed the sigh of one disappointed by the tragic ending of a book I wanted to read forever.

This is a real 5 star book, that despite the sometimes almost archaic “couching” of its descriptive prose (which goes a long way to helping place the events in the time that they were set) and its old fashioned “colloquial” terms, speeds on like a road runner on amphetamines. If you haven’t read this book, it should be at the very top of your “to read” list.

On a final note, Ms Lindsay would never say whether the book had really been based on a true story; word on the street is that it is not. But if it ain’t, brother it should be.

Author Joan “we are not worthy” Lindsay.

The Awakening (2011): Who Ya Gonna Call

The Awakening is one hundred percent English, like cricket or afternoon tea with strawberry jam, thick cream and scones. Currently an English film either does extremely well or dies a quiet and dismal death. This film appears to be smack in the middle with a very poor audience reception, the tally cannot be fully counted as the film is still being released in other countries throughout 2012. It  is all the more puzzling since the film opened at the Toronto Film Festival to mostly positive reviews. Amazingly this three million pound  film, has not done well,  pulling in a fraction of its production cost.

Nick Murphy directed and co-wrote the film with Stephen Volk and it is the first feature film helmed by Murphy (who has a long pedigree directing  television programmes).  British actress Rebecca Hall, perhaps more familiar to film goers as Emily Wotton in the film Dorian Gray, is an excellent actress who is moving up in the cinema world. She is currently working on the next instalment of the Iron Man series Iron Man 3.  Imelda Staunton gives a splendid performance as Maud the eccentric housekeeper. Dominic West is brilliant as the traumatized, wounded ex-army teacher in the boarding school. Especially notable is  Joseph Mawle as the school gardener/caretaker (he can currently be seen in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter as Thomas Lincoln)  never has one actor exuded so much menace and downright nastiness. The real surprise is Isaac Hempstead Wright. This young actor gave a faultless performance as the young school boy Tom in his first ever film performance.

Preface –  The year is 1921 and the world  is still reeling from the deaths caused by the ‘War to end all wars’ and from the Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918. In England where  the religion of Spiritualism has always been quite popular, the amount of people who wanted to get in touch with their deceased loved-one rose to almost fever pitch. This lead to “easy pickings” for the charlatan mediums of the time.

The “Reader’s Digest” version of the plot is as follows: Famous Ghost ‘debunker’ Florence Cathcart spectacularly halts a seance in mid flow to reveal that the whole thing is a sham. Florence is not popular with the gullible victim and we see that this debunking business is quite hard on her psychologically. She has had a book published and this combined with her debunking work has made her a minor celebrity. Florence is approached by teacher Robert Malory from Rookford boy’s boarding school. He want’s Florence to come and debunk the ghost of a boy who was murdered back when the school was a private residence. Malory informs Florance that a boy has just recently died as a result of seeing the ghost. He also mentions that the housekeeper Maude, who has been with the school since it’s inception is a big fan of Florence’s and does not believe in ghosts.

Arriving at the school Florence meets the creepy grounds keeper Edward Judd, Maude (her number one fan), the headteacher and Freddie Strickland (another teacher at the school). After interviewing the students and the staff, Florence decides to accept the job and sets out her antique ghost-buster equipment throughout the school. She discovers who is responsible for the ‘hauntings’ and successfully debunks the school ghost. Things then take a harsh turn to the left and it seems that Florence has not debunked anything at all.

The overall mood and atmosphere of this film did not feel like your bog standard horror or ghost film. It affects you in a different way. My daughter, who watched the film with me, kept breaking out in goose flesh and I could not tear my eyes from the screen. The film almost feels like a drawing room mystery, but at the same time, it doesn’t. I kept thinking that this was a Miss Marple of the ghost world only to have that thought quashed by what was happening on the screen. Rarely have I watched a film that had such an impact.

When I checked on IMDb for the budget and box office figures, I was dumbfounded by the amounts I was confronted with. I just don’t understand it.

This film is easily on par with The Others, even though the films are really nothing alike. Both films though have the power to drag you into their worlds and leave you gasping when you get to the end.

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