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Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Love Without Words: The Quiet Storytelling of Heartstopper

Eleanor Zhang reflects on the flawed but beautiful storytelling of Netflix's Heartstopper

CW: abuse, racism

Among the many interesting moments in Netflix’s latest big hit Heartstopper, the one I found particularly revelatory about the show’s texture is in the last episode, when the two protagonists Nick (Kit Conner) and Charlie (Joe Locke) are sat next to Alice Oseman – creator of the comic as well as the TV series – who sketches the two boys as comic characters on her tablet. The scene communicates to us a relationship between the screen and the page that is at once fascinating and slightly disturbing: what has just been adapted for the screen could so easily return to the pages.

Such a page-screen dynamic functions as Heartstopper’s very premise. The panels from the original comic series, which is currently in its seventh season on the webcomic platform Tapas, are more than enough for serving as quasi-storyboards for the TV adaptation. To ensure there is no doubt about the series being born from the comics, director Euros Lyn diligently chucks all the grown-up framing and editing from BBC’s Sherlock and Doctor Who out the window, and instead settles for doodle-level filmmaking: square frames, slide transitions between scenes, not to mention the multiple-character shots that have Nick, Charlie, and their friends framed in literal panels to indicate the synchronicity of their group chat texting. What we see on screen ends up not being just the same story from the pages, but also the pages themselves. 

And this on-screen adoption of the comic format does help the series achieve what’s best for Netflix, or at least its budget. With merely eight episodes, each approximately 30 minutes in length, the first season covers three whole seasons of content from the original comics. In the Tapas/Webtoon timeframe (one episode per 10 days, also counting Oseman’s hiatuses), we are talking about two years’ worth of updates. The reason why this could happen is the same reason why many of us finished the season in one go: rare for the teen drama genre, the show, much like its sketched source material, is taciturn like an actual shy teenager. There is no “I am feeling butterflies in my heart” inner monologue when Tao and Elle have their moment in the art room, but real doodled butterflies flying around. There is no “I feel really attracted to you” whenever Nick and Charlie almost touch hands, but animated sparks sizzling between their fingers. Even in the climatic moment of the two boys’ first kissing scene, little was said beyond a few lines and the “can I kiss you”. Instead of big confessions that everyone has been holding their breath for, there were only the tiny hand-drawn flowers forming a circle around the pair and coming into full bloom. While the comic format forbids any lengthy dialogues to avoid tiring the reader and to leave more space for pictures – the show has inherited this speechlessness to achieve the same. As graphic elements replace words, and “Hi” in the school corridors replace love confessions, Heartstopper becomes light as a feather that tickles more than some elaborate tearjerker. 

The lightness of comic aesthetics works in Heartstopper’s favour in many ways, with one in particular that might have accidentally transformed the landscape of the YA TV genre, and in particular LGBTQ+ films and series. From Breadwinner (2017) to this year’s Oscar nominee Flee (2021), both of which animated films that tell real-life stories, with the latter being an actual documentary, animation’s power to represent reality and produce authenticity should now be familiar to us. By seeing the world through drawings and colours, parts of reality that tend to be invisible are revealed in plain sight, which is why Heartstopper has redefined the phrase ‘show, don’t tell’. 

By cutting down spoken words and leaving space largely to visuals, the series vividly conveys that feeling particular to being teenagers – of knowing something deep down without having the words for it. Charlie and Nick might not be good at explaining and defining their relationship in words, but their mutual attraction is clear as day to themselves – and to the audience – through the doodled sparks and flower petals, imaginary things that anyone in love knows is there without having to see them. The pair might find it hard to pin down their connection, but it’s made all-so-obvious by the recurring colour combination of blue and yellow, on books scattered across classroom desks, and on their umbrella as they share a kiss in the rain – that feeling that when you’re falling in love, it’s as if reality’s very palette is dropping you hints and being the matchmaker. 

The wordless but meaningful colours also work particularly well for portraying the experience of discovering one’s sexuality. Although Nick has only typed or voiced the word ‘bisexual’ on a few occasions, and uncertain about it being applicable to him for most of season 1, the bisexual flag colours pink, blue, and purple, follow him from the bowling alley to his friend Harry’s party, where he eventually kisses Charlie for the first time. My personal favourite graphic detail remains the abundance of backscatter in the show. The little rainbow orbs are often considered undesired accidents in photography and filmmaking, but just like Nick and Charlie’s friendship-turned-love, some accidents are cute and lovely, which is perhaps why Heartstopper’s cinematography deliberately leaves the orbs as they are in the final cut. 

As much as there is to praise about Heartstopper’s wordless approach to TV, the disappearance of spoken lines also comes with compromises. Even though Heartstopper isn’t set on depicting a high school utopia (which would be the biggest oxymoron ever), it is inevitably selective about the events it curates. Because hardly anyone in the show speaks more than ten words in one line, little is explored and resolved about the bullying experienced by many characters from ethnic minority backgrounds. Charlie’s best friend Tao is the perfect sidekick, but we never get to hear why he is constantly picked on by white rugby boys, or why he is afraid of being isolated at school. Tara’s Instagram is inundated with unfriendly DMs after announcing her lesbian relationship, while her white girlfriend Darcy does not seem to experience the same amount of aggression. Elle transfers from a boys’ to a girls’ school, and is relieved about no longer being bullied by cis male peers, but we don’t see her having any friends at the new school other than Tara and Darcy. Since the comics series more than just touches on the topic of teenage struggles and mental health issues, the show should not omit the unique problems encountered by ethnic minority young people. 

Sometimes, silence can be poetic and meaningful, an art which Heartstopper’s first season has clearly mastered. But other times, things demand words and actions. In the final episode, Charlie confronts his abusive ex Ben in an out-of-character but cathartically long dressing-down speech. As much as I love flowers, fireworks, and gentle rainbow glows, I hope to see more of the same spoken anger in the next season when it’s needed.

Artwork by Wang Sum Luk

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