It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that Jane Austen was one of the greatest storytellers to ever live. In fact, almost any film adaptation of an Austen tale is a great work of art at best, and at worst mildly entertaining. Perhaps the most well-known are true to the time in which the author lived, like 1995’s Sense and Sensibility and both the 1996 and 2020 adaptations of Emma. Some films, like Austenland and The Jane Austen Bookclub are tributes to the culture that surrounds the author’s work even after her death. And then there’s Clueless, the modern spin on Emma that is revered by film critics, fans and teenagers alike.
Clueless fans in any of those categories will surely enjoy Fire Island, a tribute to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that follows a group of young gay men on their annual retreat to Fire Island. The friends plan to party and meet other gentlemen, as is the Fire Island custom. It’s not until Howie (Saturday Night Live breakout Bowen Yang) expresses feelings of loneliness that Noah (Joel Kim Booster, also the film’s screenwriter) decides to help him. Noah declares that he will refrain from any sexual encounters until he assists Howie in finding someone to hook up with.
What follows is a lighthearted romp about love and friendship, aligned almost perfectly with Austen’s famous novel. The performances are enjoyable, particularly Yang’s Howie and Conrad Ricamora’s Will — the Mr. Darcy type. Ricamora is more reserved than the rest of the gang, but expertly so, as he seems to fit in with some of the Fire Island crowd but is just different enough from Kim Booster’s Noah that their romance feels authentic and unexpected. Yang’s performance is real and heartfelt, perhaps ascribing more — or at least a different — dimension to Austen’s Jane Bennett.
However, as good as Fire Island is, there are some missed opportunities. The narration Booster provides is an interesting choice and works well in some areas, like the opening scene where Noah recites Pride and Prejudice’s opening line; and is a bit much in others, like the ferry ride to the island. Fire Island also chooses to skip over the bits that involve the detestable Mr. Collins and Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte. These characters are important to the original Pride and Prejudice because they provide a biting social commentary that makes the story more relevant and serious. Kim Booster does add a bit where Maragaret Cho’s Erin mentions that her finances are in trouble and she may not be able to keep the house where the boys are staying. Nothing is done to remedy this, and though it does add some narrative tension, even the characters hardly seem worried about it. Given that all of the characters are gay, it would have been interesting to see Booster’s spin on the Collins/Charlotte debacle — especially because the film’s modern update on the Lydia/Wickham relationship is very clever.
However, Fire Island need not provide social commentary to work. Perhaps the greatest strength of the film is that Booster chooses to emphasize the friendship that exists between Howie and Noah, rather than the romance between Noah and Will. The end of the film depicts a grand romantic gesture that includes the words “I love you,” to which many of the characters comically balk, since they have only known each other for a few days. The film isn’t afraid to play with the real world, especially as it pertains to the gay community, but also gives way to the fantasy life that Austen has gracefully perpetuated all these years later.
Fire Island is a wonderful and much needed foray into the gay rom-com. It is a light and funny film that will entertain many and join a legacy of adaptations in a well deserved spot on the Austen mantle. Jane herself might even be proud to see the continued relevance of her work, and June is the perfect time for a little pride, especially without the prejudice.