No drugs, booze, sex or swearing: will Heartstopper rewrite the young love rulebook? – The Guardian
Milkshakes, movie nights, incessant Instagramming and then early to bed … Heartstopper shows lovelorn teens as never before. Its creator Alice Oseman on turning her hit web comic into a joyful queer love story for TV
Heartstopper is the anti-Euphoria. The upcoming Netflix teen drama – about a budding romance between two school friends – is as wholesome and uplifting as the headline-grabbing US high-school sensation is bleak and ridiculously debauched. Heartstopper’s 15-year-olds don’t take drugs, drink alcohol, have sex, swear or even argue with their parents. Instead, they go out for milkshakes, perform dutifully in school music concerts and have chaste movie nights. They are sweet, chronically polite and partial to an early night – a world away from the contemporary teen TV stereotype.
But Heartstopper is also quietly radical. The show, which is set in the UK, is a gay love story aimed at young viewers. Sensitive, incessantly apologetic swot Charlie meets charming rugby star Nick in class, and the spark between them slowly blossoms into love. It’s a flirtation punctuated by much classically British romcom awkwardness, reams of Instagram messages and plenty of panicked Googling.
Although it won’t be released until next month, Heartstopper already has a passionately devoted following. That’s because the show is based on the much-loved, long-running young-adult web comic of the same name, created by Alice Oseman (it boasts more than 500,000 subscribers on Webtoon, just one of its online platforms). The 27-year-old is also behind this TV version: she didn’t just write the script, she oversaw every detail, from the costumes to the casting.
Oseman started Heartstopper in 2016, plucking the two protagonists from her YA debut novel Solitaire, where they appear as supporting characters. Solitaire was a relatively “dark” book about mental health, says Oseman, who is unwaveringly smiley and inclined towards brief, efficient explanations. Yet she was determined to turn the origin story of Charlie and Nick’s relationship into something “optimistic and joyful”. It took off quickly, popularity-wise – and then proceeded to take over Oseman’s life. She began reshaping the comic into a TV show in 2019 and is still writing new chapters of the web version as we speak – aiming to draw a page every day of her working week.
Heartstopper is the sort of meticulously crafted passion project that, done carelessly, could make for a painful page-to-screen translation. But Oseman was determined to stay true to the story’s roots. One of the stipulations was that it remained distinctively British. Despite being aimed at a global audience, there is no Sex Education-style, vaguely transatlantic setting here. Oseman, who grew up in Kent, “wouldn’t have said yes to adapting it if they’d wanted to set it in America. I really, really wanted it to be set in Britain – I think that’s so integral.” Terminology such as “form groups” has confused overseas readers of the comics, but she insisted on keeping “all of those little British things. I think people will still understand it.” Like how British audiences have no problem grasping the minutiae of the US school system? “Exactly!”
Oseman also felt it was important to fill the cast with school-age actors. It’s the norm for teens on TV to be played by twentysomethings, but “there aren’t enough shows where teens are played by real teens,” thinks Oseman. Kit Connor – best known for his role as the young Elton John in Rocketman – is Nick, while newcomer Joe Locke is Charlie. Both are still 18. Age meant much of the cast was new to acting: William Gao, who plays Charlie’s exuberantly cynical best friend Tao, was discovered via an open casting; their other friend Elle is played by trans TikTok sensation Yasmin Finney in her TV debut.
Despite the story’s warm-and-fuzzy quality – the joy Nick and Charlie find in each other practically bounces off the screen – the show makes it quite clear that it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for gay British teens. Heartstopper is set predominantly in a grammar school – a boys’ equivalent of the one Oseman attended – where homophobia is rife. Charlie has already come out as gay in school and is the subject of regular mockery, while anti-gay jokes are a recurring motif of Nick’s laddish friends’ chat. It’s far from the woke inclusivity you might presume today’s teens would embrace.
Oseman says the reaction of the other students was based on her own experiences of school. But haven’t things progressed over the past decade? She isn’t convinced. “When I meet teenagers who have read my books, from some I get the impression they’ve had such a better experience being LGBT+ in school now, but for others it sounds exactly the same. I like to think overall things have got better, but it’s still not blissful amazingness everywhere.”
As you might expect for a 2022-set teen show, the bulk of the action – and lots of the dialogue – takes place on screens. The fact that so much in life now happens virtually might seem like a problem for drama – a medium largely predicated on seeing people do and say things. Yet Heartstopper turns phone-based communication into a brilliant storytelling device: when we witness the characters write and then nervously delete messages without ever sending them, it’s like being privy to their inner monologues.
That said, incorporating phones was “so hard” on a practical level. The team filmed endless screens only to discover the text was “too zoomed out – you can’t read the words, or you don’t know where your eyes are supposed to focus”. They eventually landed on Instagram as the messaging app of choice, partly because “obviously teenagers use it all the time”, but also because its formatting was “very easy to understand.”
In Heartstopper, technology is also the primary medium for self-discovery. While Charlie has already come to terms with his sexuality, Nick is flummoxed by his feelings. In his confusion, his first port of call is an internet quiz on the subject. Googling your feelings is “an experience so many queer people can relate to,” says Oseman.
As a result of his internet odyssey, Nick eventually realises he is bisexual. Having barely accepted the label himself, he must almost immediately start educating others about a still much-misunderstood sexual orientation. Oseman – who herself identifies as aromantic asexual (a person who experiences little or no romantic or sexual attraction to others) – knows how that feels. “That’s one thing bisexual and asexual people can totally relate to,” she says. “Those are lesser known sexualities and you’re more likely to get questions when you come out.”
Oseman’s quest to educate others about her identity has gone further than most. In 2020, she published her fourth YA novel, Loveless, about Georgia, a girl who has never had a crush on anybody but is determined to fall in love during her first year at Durham University. That doesn’t exactly go to plan, and Georgia soon realises she is, like Oseman, aromantic asexual. At the time, Oseman had never come across a YA character who identified in the same way, and still feels that “asexual and aromantic people have barely any representation in anything”. The reaction from readers has been huge: not only did Loveless help some “accept their sexuality”, she says, it also enabled others to “understand a friend or a family member better. That’s one of the most amazing things I could possibly hear as a writer.”
Like Heartstopper, Oseman based Loveless on her own educational experiences: she also went to Durham – although her student experience was far from typical. Having finished Solitaire at 17, she landed a six-figure publishing deal whilst at university – a feat so unusual it made headlines. Oseman ended up writing her second book, Radio Silence, between lectures.
It was a stressful way to spend her degree, but it was also a nice distraction. Oseman “didn’t have a good university experience: I didn’t enjoy the course, I didn’t enjoy the social aspect of it – I didn’t find many people I felt like I could be really good friends with.” She did make some in the end – a few “really nice” girls that she lived with in her second and third years – but carved out a separate life for herself through her books. Aside from the odd Facebook post, she largely kept her writing under wraps. “It always felt like quite a private thing I was doing and I didn’t really like talking about it to other people.”
When the TV version of Heartstopper is released, there will be nothing remotely private about the world Oseman has created: it’s set to rocket from (very popular) cult concern to mainstream material. Luckily, the author is almost ready to leave this richly imagined world behind. She has nearly finished writing the Heartstopper comics – chapter eight will be the last, and she’s already planned out the ending. Loveless, meanwhile, was the final instalment in her YA book deal.
Now, Oseman is thinking about moving on from teen fiction completely and writing something aimed at adult readers. “I have the freedom to decide what I want to do next and I do feel drawn to writing about older characters now – because I have grown up. But I don’t know what that would be yet.” You can’t help but feel her audience will be changing regardless: Heartstopper will doubtless appeal to swathes of viewers outside its school-age target audience – not just as a corrective for years of ridiculously overwrought depictions of adolescence, but also as that remarkably rare TV offering: a comfortingly escapist, binge-worthy beacon of loveliness and love.
Heartstopper is on Netflix from 22 April