Content Warning: There will be a ton of spoilers for Jane Austen’s 1813 novel “Pride and Prejudice,” though I’ll try to avoid obvious spoilers for “Fire Island.” Also, “Fire Island” has several instances of graphic sex, so maybe don’t watch this one with your grandma (unless she’s cool).
To the woman watching the 1995 BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice” for the 11th time, I need you to pause the scene where Darcy jumps in the lake and listen to me for a moment. I know it’s hard, but I promise it will be worth it.
My friend, I experienced an unexpected delight a few weeks back. My friend and I were on vacation and had spent the whole day cooking in the hot Irvine sun. When we eventually retreated to our hotel, we just wanted to watch TV and gorge ourselves on Porto’s pastries. So we turned on Hulu, I tried again to convince my friend to watch the brilliant sci-fi “The Orville,” and we settled on the 2022 film “Fire Island.” We thought it looked cute and went in with no expectations.
Then as we watched the story unfold, we noticed a few familiar tropes. The meddling “mother” of a lower-income family. Meeting a cute guy at a party who’s from a completely different income bracket. Meeting that cute guy’s stiff, prideful friend. Hanging out with a hottie you think is super cool, but as it turns out, he’s a piece of garbage.
We were about fifteen minutes into “Fire Island,” when I realized what was going on, and I yelled at my poor friend, “DUDE, THIS IS PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.”
The moment that realization kicked in, my enjoyment of the movie went from “this is a nice movie to have on while eating cheese rolls” to “I NEED EVERY PERSON I KNOW TO WATCH THIS OR ELSE I WILL SCREAM.”
As much as I love Jane Austen, I admit it is tricky to create an authentic modern adaptation of her work. Part of Austen’s appeal is how she deftly weaves social issues and conventions into her writing to add depth to her characters and the story. In Austen’s work, love is not the only thing at stake. Other issues include survival, comfort, social status, and self-respect. Characters are often forced to marry someone they dislike to achieve financial independence or reject someone they love, only to regret it later. The characters’ actions have consequences. Unfortunately, some modern adaptations tend to forget the essential role of these social issues and reduce the complex works of Austen to stories like, “what if these rich sisters didn’t have money anymore?”
Joel Kim Booster, a writer and comedian, penned the screenplay for “Fire Island” and stars as Noah, our Elizabeth character. Although I was not familiar with Booster’s work before watching this movie, unless you count his work on “Big Mouth,” after watching “Fire Island,” I am now a fan.
Booster’s screenplay is incredibly faithful to “Pride and Prejudice” but also manages to diverge from the source material enough to make salient points about modern classism, racism, and self-esteem. In other words, “Fire Island” is a phenomenal adaptation because it has something to say, and its messages can resonate with anyone. While “Fire Island” is an LGBTQ+ film, the idea of wanting to be loved for yourself and the fear of being vulnerable and getting hurt is universal.
“Fire Island” is a fantastic example of what can happen when someone is allowed to tell a story from their perspective. The familiar beats of Austen’s masterpiece were imbued with new meaning as Booster told this beloved story from the main point of view of a gay Asian man. Because of his status in society, Booster created a realistic and loveable version of the iconic Elizabeth Bennet. The character of Noah is intelligent, brave, loving, and unapologetically sexual. However, underneath that “hot” veneer is someone drowning in student debt, subject to constant anti-Asian racism, and terrified of being vulnerable.
Noah is a great variation of Elizabeth Bennet’s character, but he’s far from the only good character in this movie. I love how he crafted the Bennet family: instead of a checked-out Dad, social-climbing mother, and five distant sisters, we have a found family. Five gay men who love each other like brothers, and their “mother,” played excellently by Margaret Cho. Margaret Cho is an absolute joy in this movie: she’s funny, warm, and just enough of a ditz to remind us of Mrs. Bennet.
Bowen Yang‘s Howie, aka the Jane Bennet, is also superb. This version of Jane is similar and different from the Jane Bennet of the novel. Howie contains all of Jane’s charm, kindness, and romanticism, and is loved by Noah as fiercely as Elizabeth loves Jane. However, the film deviates from the source material because Howie is not the hot sister. If anything, Noah and Luke (this movie’s Lydia Bennet, played by Matt Rogers) seem to battle for that title. Meanwhile, Howie is a thirty-year-old man who’s never had a boyfriend. He feels desperately unwanted.
My lived experiences are not nearly the same as Howie’s experience as a gay Asian man, but I sadly can relate to the feeling of being unwanted. And I know I’m not the only person who has felt this way. I have met more Howies in my life than you can imagine: sweet people who deserve all the love in the world, and yet for reasons beyond their control, they remain single. So as much as I sympathized with Jane Bennet, Howie is the version of her that I truly connected with.
Speaking of great performances, I feel that the thirstiest of readers may be curious about the romantic lead who puts all other romantic leads to shame: Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. Conrad Ricamora is a stage actor best known for a recurring role in “How to Get Away With Murder.” After watching this movie, I hope more people come to know him as “the cutest, most socially awkward Darcy to exist.” Ricamora’s Will initially comes across as cold and judgmental, like the kind of person who looks down on other people for buying two-buck chuck when Argentinian Malbec is clearly superior. I especially liked the cinematic detail of him drinking Voss water instead of tap. However, as the viewers, and Noah, get to know Will better, we see that he’s actually a really nice guy. He’s not well-versed in pop culture and cannot dance, but he has integrity and cares about other people. Ricamora is also a handsome man and appears shirtless in several scenes, so I think that will fill your “Darcy looking sexy and disheveled,” quota.
I think “Fire Island” is a must-watch for any fans of Jane Austen. I also hope that as this film was well-received by audiences and critics, it will create space for more Austen adaptations and literary adaptations with diverse casts and authentic experiences. I am far from an expert on this topic, but I try to highlight diverse storytelling I think others will enjoy.
One of the film’s noteworthy strengths is that it knows when to diverge from the original story. It can be challenging to adapt any classic work because the historical context is so different. For example, Noah and Howie do not have the same struggles as Elizabeth and Jane. They can financially support themselves (sort of), even if they’re not wealthy, and they have a degree of social freedom that the Bennet sisters could never have (unless I missed the scene where the Bennet sisters took molly and hooked up with random hotties). However, Noah and Howie experience struggles that Elizabeth and Jane will not, like existing as gay Asian men in a world that favors white straight men. Also, instead of a story of sisterly love, instead we get one a sweet friendship between two men. These differences work in the movie’s favor and distinguish it from Jane Austen’s work.
Adaptations do not have to be a word-for-word remake of the original product. If anything, I think it’s incredible when an artist readapts a classic story but puts their own spin on it. Recently, a friend of mine told me about a project she was working on. It was a comic adaptation of the classic Euripedes play “Helen.” Given that much of my formal education was in biology, anthropology, and accounting, I am barely literate and have never heard of this play. Still, given my recent obsession with “The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller, I was intrigued. She also told me that in her version of Helen, titled “Eleni,” Helen of Sparta is queer and has a lot more agency.
That is so cool. I was suddenly very interested in learning about the original Euripedes drama but even more excited that my friend had created something unique and special. Over a thousand years after this play was created, my friend breathed new life into it. It reminded me that people can create incredible stories celebrating the works of the past while staying true to themselves. This is why I believe films like “Fire Island” should be recognized for taking a beloved story and putting it in a new context so that it can be enjoyed by a modern audience.
If you are interested in other queer adaptations of Austen’s work, then I’d be happy to recommend two web series that I think viewers may enjoy. “The Emma Agenda” was a web series released in 2017. It’s a modest production, and I believe it was made by college film students, but the trailer is very cute, and the show looks like it was crafted with care.
I also recommend the web series “Rational Creatures,” which is a modern, LGBTQ+ retelling of my favorite book, “Persuasion.” Starring Kristina Pupo as Ana Eliás and Peter Geissel as Fred Wentworth, I’m excited to see where this story will go in its second season. I want to see the cause for Ana and Fred’s horrible break-up, and I wonder if it may have something to do with Ana being unwilling to live authentically. As of July 2022, the second season has yet to premiere, so we don’t know everything about these characters and their journeys, but I trust that the creators of Rational Creatures will do everything they can to tell this story earnestly and respectfully.
“Fire Island” is the first film I’m aware of that stars an LGBTQ+ Asian cast and is featured on a major streaming platform (although if you’re aware of any others, please feel free to let me know). I really enjoyed this movie, and I think other people will also if they give it a chance. Stories like this are often told by a small group of passionate people with few resources. I hope any artist who has read this far realizes their art and vision are valid and worth pursuing. If you care about your art, then it will find the right audience. “Fire Island” may not be the first movie of its kind, but I hope that its existence proves there is an audience for diverse storytelling. And, by extension, convince the powers at be that writers from marginalized communities have wonderful stories to tell.