‘Heartstopper’ is a TV love story with the soul of a comic book

Nick, 16, and Charlie, 15, sit side by side on the sofa, watching a movie. Charlie fell asleep, arm outstretched, palm up.

Nick (Kit Connor) looks at the sleeping Charlie (Joe Locke) – first with fondness, then with concern. Her eyes drop to Charlie’s hand and the tension is palpable.

When he reaches out and lets his hand hover above Charlie’s, sparks literally fly across the screen. Tiny animated stars and lightning burst with the silent sound of fireworks. A warm yellow glow envelopes the space between the boys’ palms.

That moment comes near the end of the second episode — aptly titled “Crush” — of “Heartstopper,” the rich coming-of-age love story that recently arrived on Netflix.

“Heartstopper” has racked up one unlikely hit after another since its premiere in 2016, as a black-and-white webcomic by Alice Oseman. The comic’s reception, which received more than 52 million views, inspired Oseman to fund and self-publish a “Heartstopper” graphic novel in 2018, which caught the eye of a publisher in 2019. Three more volumes and a coloring book followed, together selling over a million copies. The live-action adaptation has remained among Netflix’s most-watched English-language shows since its premiere in late April.

So the story clearly resonated. But what’s particularly striking about the Netflix series, which was created and written by Oseman, is the extent to which it faithfully recreates the comic on screen, with actors who closely resemble the main characters and many shots that match the images of the source material.

The most notable element is the incorporation of 2D animation. The moments are rare and subtle – the snow falling around Nick and Charlie or the leaves swirling around friends, a recurring visual in the comic. But based on the many comments online, viewers noticed and approved. (Netflix declined to say if it plans to renew the show for another season.)

“We just thought it would add something, like a bit of magic to the show – because it’s called ‘Heartstopper’ for a reason,” Oseman said in a video interview from Kent, England, where she grew up. “It’s about those little moments in a relationship where your heart is beating and your feelings are so big.”

Now 27, Oseman began writing Nick and Charlie as characters when she was 17, in her first novel, “Solitaire.” Her writing style, she says, is deeply influenced by the fact that she started writing when she was the same age as her characters.

“Now, as an adult writing teenagers, for me, the main thing is to always treat teenage characters like mature human beings and never try to write, pretend you’re a teenager,” said Oseman. “Because teenagers don’t feel like teenagers; the teenagers are the oldest they have ever been.

Nick and Charlie, supporting characters from “Solitaire,” were Oseman’s first queer characters — she wrote them at a time, she says, when she didn’t yet know she was queer herself. They marked the beginning of her journey into writing queer fiction.

Her favorite scene from the webcomic is Nick and Charlie’s first kiss, which was surreal to see made into television, she said. It was as if someone had ripped him out of his head and dropped him into the real world.

“As a director, that’s my job: I imagine what it’s going to be like,” Euros Lyn, who directed the entire series, said in a video interview from Wales. “So I had all these images in my head, and then I went to the graphic novel and realized they were the same.”

Lyn read the script first, before reading the graphic novel, and was blown away by how well Oseman translated his own images into language. He was also charmed by the imagery itself – little drawings Oseman had done in the margins of the scripts that were eventually adapted into some of the show’s graphic flourishes.

“When everyone read the scripts with these doodles on the side, it was so magical that we were like, ‘Well, this needs to show up on screen,'” Lyn said. “It elevates the emotion and intensity of those moments, gives them another quality, and tells something that’s going on in the minds of the characters.”

However, the way the team uses animation evolves throughout the show. At the end of the first episode, Nick’s mother, Sarah (Olivia Colman), takes him home after rugby practice. As Nick stares out the window thinking of Charlie, a simple pair of animated seagulls are reflected in the car window, another motif from the graphic novels. At the end of the fifth episode, viewers see an intricate pair of lovebirds circling and flying towards the camera. (Anna Peronetto, the host, remembers looking out the window and analyzing the London green parakeets to study how they moved.)

“There were key frames that we took care to transcribe as carefully as possible, so that the staging was as accurate as possible,” Lyn said. “Not only was the production design true to the graphic novel, but the costumes were – the tone was as true to the graphic novel as possible.”

Both the webcomic and the graphic novel were drawn in monochrome. So Lyn and her team had to come up with a color palette and lighting style that fit the story. The casting process was also a challenge: they had to find actors who not only looked like the characters, but could also channel their emotions.

Finding a facilitator was easier. Peronetto was a devoted fan of the “Heartstopper” comic book, an obsession she shared with her sisters. It was his older sister who introduced Peronetto to graphic novels, and his twin sister is the one who stumbled across Oseman’s Instagram post looking for a 2D animator.

“Something that has not been highlighted enough with this project is that it has not only been very inclusive in the cast choices, but also in the crew,” Peronetto wrote in a E-mail. “I found it refreshing to be surrounded by so many talented women and people from the LGBTQIA+ community at all stages of production.”

Peronetto would typically watch a first cut of each episode, then discuss with Lyn and Sofie Alonzi, the film’s editor, what animations might be suitable. She was free to come up with creative solutions based on the storyboards – then she knew what elements and tone a scene needed. And she always had her copy of the graphic novel handy.

“When you were working on new elements, the most important thing was to keep the emotions right, and it was clear to me what the animated scenes should make the audience feel,” Peronetto said. “I just tried to convey the same feeling I had while reading ‘Heartstopper’.”