When Joel Kim Booster, a comedian, actor, writer and producer made his first trip to New York's famously gay Fire Island, he packed a copy of Pride and Prejudice as his beach read. Unencumbered by the social mores of heteronormativity, Booster found himself observing the queer culture around him through the lens of Jane Austen and joked to his friends —including Saturday Night Live standout Bowen Yang — that he was going to write a "gay Pride and Prejudice set on Fire Island."
Now, eight years after that inaugural trip and more than 200 years since Pride and Prejudice was first published, Fire Island has come to fruition. Hulu's romantic comedy follows best friends Noah (Booster) and Howie (Yang) as they embark on what could be their final summer on the little strip of queer haven. Like the novel of manners before it, Fire Island is a classic tale of love and class-consciousness, albeit with a modern twist.
"Jane Austen's observations about how human beings judge each other really gets to the core of how we are as [people]," director Andrew Ahn (Spa Night and Driveways) says of Pride and Prejudice's enduring ability to reach through time, no matter the reader's race or gender or sexuality.
"And about how we can break through some of that judgment to create true and authentic connection. For queer people especially, we are very good at judging people. It's part of our survival skills because we have to see if someone's going to accept us for who we are, so we have a very trained sense of judgment. And then we end up using that on each other within the community," Ahn tells A.frame. "Joel very smartly saw the connections between what Austen was saying about Regency era society and modern queer culture today."
Booster's Noah is the Elizabeth Bennet of Fire Island, desperate to get lovelorn Howie laid on the island and even more desperate to avoid repeated run-ins with stuffy-but-sexy Will (the Fitzwilliam Darcy stand-in played by Conrad Ricamora). "Let's be honest, I'm probably the Mary," laughs Ahn. "But in our film, I'm actually more of a Howie — who's our Jane."
Likewise, Fire Island trades the Netherfield ball for shirtless dance parties — known as The Tea Dance on the island — and waistcoats for speedos, with far more darkrooms, Britney Spears singalongs and jokes about PrEP than Austen could have ever dreamed of in the 19th century. But for Ahn, Austen's novel was always the north star, and he filled his movie with Easter eggs for all the Janeites.
"We definitely never wanted to abandon Pride and Prejudice," he says. "Our super talented costume designer, David Tabbert, put in these little touches that I thought were super fun." Consider Zane Phillips' Dex, who wears military boots as a nod to the novel's scrupleless militia man, Mr. Wickham. "On the soundtrack, the Perfume Genius song [featured in the movie] has a little harpsichord. And our score, written by Jay Wadley, has these classical touches that are a nod to the Pride and Prejudice of it all."
"We definitely found ways to infuse the period into the Fire Island," Ahn teases. "I hope it's fun for people to see all the little details that we left in there.
On the surface, Fire Island is but the latest adaptation of this particular classic, including both faithful retellings (the Pride and Prejudice movies from 1940 and 2005 and the miniseries from 1980 and '95) and modernized reimaginings (Bride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones's Diary). But Fire Island is quietly — and the opposite of quietly — revolutionary, as a queer, Asian American-led take on a centuries-old story.
"I love that through the process of making this film, we practiced what we preached. We created a community."
Booster took inspiration from his friend group while writing his screenplay, and when Ahn signed on to direct, he did so in order to make a movie for his friends. The hope is that when Fire Island debuts, viewers will be able to see some version of themselves or their own friends on-screen. It's the sort of representation that was felt every day on set, with a queer director at the helm and an entirely LGBTQ+ cast, including James Scully, Matt Rogers, Tomás Matos, Torian Miller, and Margaret Cho as Fire Island's "Mr. Bennet."
"There was something really special about being on the island with everybody. In our final weeks of shooting, we went out to Tea after a day of shooting and the cast was there and Margaret Cho was there with her dog Lucia," Ahn recalls, "and we were having drinks and joking and trying to figure out like what to eat for dinner. There is something about the fact that we created a chosen family amongst this cast that is reflected in the film."
Hearing that a cast became like a family during filming is nothing new, but the Fire Island family, like so many chosen families before them, endures. "[We're] on a big group text chain called The Pantry Girls" — named for the island's iconic grocery store — "and today they are texting about how Matt Rogers heard Katy Perry's 'Firework' on the radio and it made him emotional, because he's so excited for the movie to premiere." Ahn can't help but smile about it. "Like, I love that through the process of making this film, we practiced what we preached. We created a community."
Reporting by John Boone