Nick, 16, and Charlie, 15, sit side by side on the couch, watching a movie. Charlie has fallen asleep, arm outstretched, palm facing upward.
Nick (Kit Connor) gazes at a sleeping Charlie (Joe Locke) — first with tenderness, then with trepidation. His eyes dart down to Charlie’s hand and the tension is palpable.
When he reaches out and lets his hand hover above Charlie’s, sparks fly, in a literal sense, onscreen. Tiny animated stars and lightning bolts burst with the quiet sound of fireworks. A warm yellow glow envelops the space between the boys’ palms.
This moment comes toward 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 improbable success after another since it began life in 2016, as a black-and-white webcomic by Alice Oseman. The reception to the comic, which has received more than 52 million views, inspired Oseman to crowd-fund and self-publish a “Heartstopper” graphic novel in 2018, which drew the attention of a publisher in 2019. Three more volumes and a coloring book have followed, together selling more than one million copies. The live-action adaptation has remained among Netflix’s most-watched English-language shows since it premiered in late April.
So the story has clearly resonated. But what is particularly striking about the Netflix series, which was created and written by Oseman, is the degree to which it faithfully recreates the comic onscreen, with actors who closely resemble the main characters and many shots that match the images from the source material.
The most conspicuous element is the incorporation of 2-D animation. The moments are spare and subtle — snow falling around Nick and Charlie or leaves swirling around friends, a recurring visual in the comic. But based on the abundant feedback online, viewers noticed and approved. (Netflix declined to say whether it planned to renew the show for another season.)
“We just thought it would add something, like a little 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 all about those little moments in a relationship where your heart is beating and your feelings are so big.”
Now 27, Oseman started writing Nick and Charlie as characters when she was 17, in her first novel, “Solitaire.” Her writing style, she said, 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 as mature human beings and never try to write down, to pretend you’re being a teenager,” Oseman said. “Because teenagers don’t feel like teenagers; teenagers are the oldest that they’ve ever been.”
Nick and Charlie, side characters in “Solitaire,” were Oseman’s first queer characters — she wrote them at a point, she said, when she didn’t yet know she was queer herself. They signaled the beginning of her journey in writing queer fiction.
Her favorite scene from the webcomic is Nick and Charlie’s first kiss, which was surreal to see turned into television, she said. It felt as if someone had plucked it out of her head and dropped it into the real world.
“As a director, that’s my job: I imagine what it’s going to look 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 had transcribed her own imagery into language. He was also charmed by the imagery itself — little drawings Oseman had made in the margins of the scripts that were eventually adapted into some of the graphic flourishes of the show.
“When everybody read the scripts with these doodles in the side, it was so magical that we went, ‘Well, this has to appear on the screen,'” Lyn said. “It elevates the emotion and the intensity of those moments, and gives them another quality and narrates something that’s happening within the minds of the characters.”
How the team uses animation, though, evolves throughout the show. At the end of the first episode, Nick’s mother, Sarah (Olivia Colman), is driving him home from rugby practice. As Nick stars out the window, thinking of Charlie, a simple pair of animated sea gulls is reflected in the car window, another motif from the graphic novels. By the end of the fifth episode, viewers see an intricate pair of lovebirds circling and flying up to the camera. (Anna Peronetto, the animator, recalled looking out of her window and analyzing London’s green parakeets to study how they moved.)
“There were some key frames that we were really careful to transcribe as carefully as we could, so that the mise-en-scène would be as precise as possible,” Lyn said. “Not only was the production design true to the graphic novel, but the costumes were — the tone of it was as true to the graphic novel as possible.”
The webcomic and graphic novel were both drawn in monochrome, so Lyn and his team had to invent a color palette and a lighting style that fit the story. The casting process, too, was a challenge: They needed to find actors who not only looked like the characters but also could channel their emotions.
Finding an animator was easier. Peronetto was a devoted fan of the “Heartstopper” comic, an obsession she shared with her sisters. It was her older sister who introduced Peronetto to the graphic novels, and her twin sister was the one who came across Oseman’s Instagram post looking for a 2-D animator.
“Something that has not been highlighted enough with this project is how it’s not only been very inclusive in the cast choices, but also the team,” Peronetto wrote in an email. “I found it refreshing to be surrounded by a lot of talented women and people from the LGBTQIA+ community across all stages of production.”
Peronetto typically watched an early cut of each episode, then discussed with Lyn and Sofie Alonzi, the film editor, which animations might fit. She was free to come up with creative solutions based on the storyboards — she knew by then which elements and tone a scene needed. And she always had her copy of the graphic novel handy.
“When 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 simply tried to deliver the same feeling I had while reading ‘Heartstopper.'”