As a novel (in 1967) and a film (in 1975), “Picnic at Hanging Rock” had a couple of features that could be problematic in 2018.
Set in 1900 in the Australian countryside, where provincial gentility rubbed up against indigenous culture and wild nature, the story centered on a series of disappearances and deaths of girls and women — symbolically done in by, or perhaps mystically transcending, their repressive environment. It was not a story of empowerment.
Even worse, by current standards, the instigating mystery — the disappearance of three boarding-school girls and one of their teachers during a hike up Hanging Rock, an actual geological feature near Melbourne — was left unsolved. Did they jump, did they run, were they killed, were they transported? No definitive answer was provided. In the peak-TV era, there is no greater heresy.
So what were the creators of a new, six-episode “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” made for Australian television and streaming on Amazon beginning Friday, to do? (Besides say, you know what? We’ve taken a look at this thing and changed our minds.) The evidence suggests they couldn’t settle on one answer to that question.
The writers, Beatrix Christian (who did the screenplay for the excellent Ray Lawrence movie “Jindabyne,” based on a Raymond Carver story) and Alice Addison, have stuck with the basic framework already set forth in the Joan Lindsay novel and the Peter Weir film.
But within and around that structure, they’ve been busy. In addition to the historical-supernatural spook fest of the original, there are a number of narratives fighting for space in this new “Picnic.”
There’s a Moll Flanders-style back story for the school’s headmistress, Mrs. Appleyard (Natalie Dormer of “Game of Thrones”), which helps explain her desperate desire to maintain respectability and to exert control over the girls. The tale of the orphaned student Sara (Inez Curro) has been expanded and made even more Dickensian.
There’s now some solemnly overheated melodrama involving sexual exploration and jealousy, and every once in a while a modern mean-girl comedy takes over. And in case we forget that the whole thing started life as a Victorian ghost story, some screen time is devoted to reading “The Turn of the Screw” out loud.
All this embellishment comes with a commensurate multiplication of tones and styles, sometimes within a scene. (The directors are Larysa Kondracki, Michael Rymer and Amanda Brotchie.) Fairly straightforward period drama mixes, uneasily, with thoroughly contemporary flourishes of satirical comedy and theatrical self-consciousness. Ms. Dormer, who narrates flashbacks to her unsavory past, occasionally punctuates a scene by turning her feline gaze straight into the camera.
The actors mostly acquit themselves well, taking things as straightforwardly as possible, though Ms. Dormer’s coy seductiveness isn’t a good fit for the headmistress (and Yael Stone of “Orange Is the New Black” goes way over the top as the most pious of the school’s governesses).
The vaudevillian, throw-everything-at-the-wall approach may reflect the creators’ sensibilities, or the need to fill a little over five hours of running time. But it also feels as if it might be a direct, somewhat panicked reaction to the ambiguities of the story.
Ms. Christian and Ms. Addison have taken every latent idea, every veiled suggestion, in the material and made it explicit. Every piece of subtext has been dredged up so that it can be turned into banal commentary on the benighted attitudes of the provincial patriarchy toward gender, race, class and sexuality. (In that sense, this “Picnic” is reminiscent of Jane Campion projects like “The Piano” and, in a more contemporary vein, “Top of the Lake.”) It’s as if they fear that anything left unexplained could, in the current climate of political and cultural correctness, be used against them.
The effect of all this addition is diminution. Mr. Weir’s film, while by no means a masterpiece, is a creepily effective tour-de-force — he uses his mastery of image and mood to make palpable both the stultifying atmosphere of Victorian Australia and the punishing heat and vertigo of a hike up Hanging Rock.
Without that kind of control and pictorial fluency, the story loses its sensuality, and all that’s left is a fairly threadbare, clichéd melodrama. In the end, the more we know about why the girls disappeared, the less we feel.
Picnic at Hanging Rock
Streaming on Amazon on Friday