When I was little, my mom would take us to the Newport News Public Library on Saturdays and make a bee line for the video section. Most of the library videos were black and white films, some of them goofy and others great. Pride and Prejudice with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier was great. Some of my favorite memories include their lilting accents wafting through the living room while mom popped popcorn on the stove and then seasoned it with salt and butter.
The movie held such sentimental value for me that I was scared to read the book, but I was pleasantly surprised. The plot, tight; the wit, sharp; the romance, divine. Also, I didn’t mind how white it was. I think one of Austen’s gifts is the specificity of her writing. She is not writing about all white people, but about these white people. She does it so successfully that I’m not pulled out of the story wondering where the Black people are. Instead of feeling excluded, I feel like I’m getting a window into a very specific world.
There have been at least 17 movies retelling this story, and the ones that do it best are the movies that are able to create real intimacy and insight into a specific community through tight world building that keeps the viewer laser-focused on the characters and their light, but real problems.
There are a few that do this well. Clueless for one. Though based on Austen’s Emma I include it in this list because it translates Austen’s strengths so well – it places us squarely in a sub-culture of the Valley in the late ‘90s with its idiosyncrasies, specific lexicon and hierarchies. I would argue, and have argued with very dear friends, that the Kiera Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice does this too. It imagines and projects a specific moment in history, restricting us to the concerns of these few families, helping us to understand their customs and hopes without making viewers feel claustrophobic.
This month, I was so happy to add Fire Island to the list of Pride and Prejudice remakes that drop the viewer into a specific community and perfectly conveys the hopes and fears of our main characters with wit and sincerity. What Fire Island does brilliantly is refusing to tie itself to the draconian rules of Austen purists. Instead, the writer and film lead, Joel Kim Booster, takes a use-what-works-and-leave-the-rest approach. As a result, we get the five loving sisters through the characters of Noah, Howie, Keegan, Luke, and Max. They lined up with the Bennet sisters so well I spent the entire movie squeaking and clapping my hands as I recognized the familiar motivations of characters based on Elizabeth and Jane, Mary, Kitty and Lydia.
The arc of the story follows the traditional Pride and Prejudice arc, but in very relatable 21st century terms. Booster shows the ways that class is still a driving factor in romantic relationships and does an excellent job of highlighting the way that race pre-determines who or how one gets to love. Booster explores these complex themes while still effortlessly following the plot of Pride and Prejudice.
The movie takes place during a summery week on Fire Island. I did not know the history of the island before watching the movie, and I am working to play catch up in that regard. But the island has a history of being a safe spot for gay communities to pursue pleasure through parties and sex and community. I appreciated the way that Booster still included sex into the storyline even though Austen purists might say that is antithetical to who she was as a writer. Austen romances are witty and sexless. To retell the story, you must commit to at least those two things.
But I’m not sure about that. My guess is that Austen does not avoid writing about sex because she is a prude. She does not write about sex because those are the norms of the specific community she is representing. Her work works because she is highlighting not just the way love tempers pride and humbles prejudice, but also the way love is informed by the specifics of our communities and the people we are accountable to through friendship and familial relationships. Booster ’s sex scenes works because it is used to help viewers understand the norms of this very specific community in this very specific time and place. On this island, during this week, if you want a sexual encounter in a semi-private/semi-public space, then the Meat Locker is where you can get it. Had Booster adhered to a strict interpretation of Jane Austen’s rules it would have made Fire Island a wooden regurgitation of Austen’s work. Instead, by taking the spirit of the story to build his own, Booster achieves a very gay, very Asian-American, very excellent re-telling of this classic story. I’m so excited to add this version of Pride and Prejudice to the repertoire.