Netflix's HEARTSTOPPER is an adorable and faithful adaption of the LGBTQIA webcomic!


Sometimes, I envy the teenagers and younger children of today for having the option to choose to watch or read or participate in stories that are curated for LGBTQIA population without the tokenism. Fifteen years back, the stories available for queer children were either very tragic adult stories or books rooted in extreme violence and homophobia, and the handful of characters we saw on screen came as the comic relief best friend of the straight girl or one-dimensional cut-outs painted in glittering pink. A happy ending for the gay population was as elusive as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. For young adult me back in 2011, the only place I could find stories about love that didn’t walk straight came from the realm of BL and GL manga, fanfictions, tumblr before it’s NSFW purge, and a few books that I could find in Indian bookshops. Hence, watching the live-in adaptation of Heartstopper was like watching a chick that had been collectively raised, loved, and critiqued by the colourful minds around the world, fly out of its nest.



Heartstopper the webcomic debuted five years back on the Tapas app, a popular self-publishing comics and novel app from South Korea. The webcomic was written and illustrated by then-college student Alice Oseman, now out as an asexual person who has written a few more YA books. Heartstopper the webcomic later was crowdsourced and printed in four volumes of graphic novels (of which I own a copy!). I learned of the book’s existence when my favourite comfort author Rainbow Rowell wrote about it on Instagram. Since then, I have had a soft spot for Heartstopper the webcomic as a queer reader, but have some major complaints with its author’s neglectful comments and other works as a book editor and BL connoisseur.


The Netflix adaptation is a joy to watch. It is one of the best book to screen adaptations of a story I have watched this year. The casting of each character is apt, and the addition of new characters and slight narrative tweaks that build on the existing lore makes an very investing story. The cinematography couldn’t get cosier and gayer than this! As someone who has grown allergic to gritty and dark teenage TV series from the west, Heartstopper arrives in the right moment with aggressive wholesomeness for the young western audience. I emphasize the term "young western audience" as the show's target audience because eastern creators (Japan, Thailand, Philippines, now South Korea and Vietnam) TV series have been making wholesome BL adaptions for a couple of years now.


Nick and Charlie’s love story follows one of the most beloved tropes of romance: the jock who falls for the timid nerd. Except here, Charlie is a talented drummer, sprinter, and nerd, and Nick is a human incarnation of a happy golden retriever (not my words!). The story spans across eight episodes, where 10th grader Charlie, the overthinking lanky openly gay kid with black curls for a mop of hair, shares his form with 11th grader Nick, the cheerful blonde sweet rugby captain who I know gives the best hugs.


Unlike the regular perception of jocks as the mean dumb guy high on testosterone, Nick is a fresh update. He is genuinely kind, is studious and friendly towards Charlie, and doesn’t shy away from befriending him despite learning his sexual orientation. He shows his concern and helps Charlie fend off his not-boyfriend ex Ben Hope, played by super-talented Sebastian Croft. Their friendship ignites a new crush in Charlie, and sparks some unknown feelings in Nick. The young actors who play Charlie and Nick, Joe Locke and Kit Connor, need to be appreciated a lot for doing such a wonderful job; they were real Nick and Charlie. Their micro expressions and body language are in sync, from random flushes of blush to bashful smiles to coy glances, intertwining pinkie fingers and watery longing eyes. Every scene was a perfect screen translation of the comic panels. And they caught the dumbassery of teenage romance well.


Heartstopper demands an emotional engagement, and I watched it with my best friend, who kept crying every time Ben Hope came to screen to hurt Charlie more, or she went "aww" when the lovely boys held hands. Well, as we are two nerds who never got to have a boyfriend or girlfriend when we were in school, we got to live that innocent fantasy through the Nick and Charlie. Though it is a story about two school boys falling in love, the story flourishes on the established tropes of the BL genre, like the straight guy's bisexual awakening, coming out to friends, bullying, secret dating, and offers a study of masculinity and the cost of participating in hyper-masculine practices. The world is really unkind to young boys; they have been raised to be physically tough and vocally exert themselves on others, but are not allowed to express their emotional vulnerabilities and needs.


In this world of Truham Grammar School that has been built brick by brick of condensed traits of toxic manhood, Charlie stands out as an opposition to everything an able-bodied cis-het man stands for [Too many terms? Time to learn them no?]. Nick is seen by the entire school as the ultimate example of a young straight white man, and by that assumption he is not even given an option by the society to not be anything but a heterosexual man! Nick’s budding crush and eventual realization that he is bisexual shows the viewers the cracks in the bro and manhood code. He learns that the people he calls as friends are awful and mean and are incapable of showing basic sympathy. And as an out person, watching Nick’s realize he is Bisexual was both sad and cathartic, because as my best friend put it: "When you are you coming out, the first person you are coming out is to yourself!" And coming out to yourself is hard, I have done it, and it was a to and fro ride between paradise and nadir!


In literature class, when studying Tom Brown’s School Days, we were constantly reminded that the All-boys British school system was one of the biggest contributors in cementing school bullying culture as a means of weeding out weak men, to create unsentimental rational men who would protect the empire and rule the colonies; do I need to give real life example? Harry Greene, played by Cormac Hyde-Corrin, Charlie and Tao Xu’s tormentor and Nick’s rugby mate, carries that lineage of that toxic, vile history. The majority of the story happens in and around the school. Tao keeps verbally fighting back with sassier comebacks, but none of his words ever penetrate Harry’s thick skull. The dumb bully is incapable of understanding that queer children can play sports and be creative, and also that being gay doesn’t make them weak second class humans. Nick’s friendship with Charlie threatens Harry’s fragile world, which can only be protected with physical violence.



Another aspect of the series I loved was how unhinged the creators were to protect LGBTQIA rights, and especially trans-rights. Yasmin Finney, who plays Elle, a former Truham student, best friend of Tao, played by William Gao, Issac played by Tobie Donovan, and Charlie, who was bullied in Truham before the series timeline has transitioned and got accepted in All-girls school. Elle’s support group never dead names her and call out their teacher’s transphobia, while the cool school lesbian couple Tara and Darcy befriend her. Tara, played by Corrina Brown, and Darcy, played by Kizzy Edgell, have an adorable storyline, their love life too already begun before the series' timeline. We get a glimpse of how coming out as a young teen couple while growing up has its pros and cons. In a world where social media occupies a significant proportion of our lives, we cannot control people’s reactions and expectations of us. Tara and Darcy also are fiercely protective of Elle, and I know next season they will push Elle and Tao’s ship into the sea of romance.


In the book, Charlie has many psychological issues that got amplified by bullying, which I am assuming the creators are going to explore in the next season. On screen, we saw the tip of the iceberg of his anxiety which leads to him into overthinking and making him feel sorry for existing. Every time Charlie said “I am sorry”, without any reason, my heart eroded a bit and my best friend screamed into her pillow. No one should apologize for existing! Ben Hope, the not boyfriend ex, reinforces and projects his own internalised homophobia and sense of worthlessness into Charlie. Throughout the eight episodes, we see Charlie do emotional wrestling between his desires to love Nick openly and his desires to save Nick from the consequences of coming out. This drove me crazy despite having read it, watching it pained me.


The addition of Imogen and Isaac was lovely. Although I know many people hate that poor girl for liking Nick, Rhea Norwood played a confident young girl who doesn’t cower from expressing her desires pretty well. Yeah, Imogen claims to be an ally for the LGBTQIA, but she has a lot to learn and unlearn. I am willing to forgive her; being straight is not a crime. As for Issac, Tobie Donovan, was a delight to watch; he has the cutest laugh ever! He keeps to himself, but understands and processes things way faster than people around him. Especially when he gives an all-knowing smile to Nick and Charlie! My boy is the best secret-keeper and a shipper!




Many of the iconic comic panels came alive on screen, and all the kisses were perfectly adapted with the right amount of emotions and music. Since I don't understand music much, I can't appreciate the effort put behind the soundtrack choices, but to my ears they were nice. That kiss in the rain was damn romantic and satisfying to watch after looking at them suffering in confusion. The fluttering autumn leaves that are Heartstopper’s simulacrum, were blowing everywhere with flowers, the costume was exactly recreated, and the bedrooms of the characters were peppered with details from the original work. Though I found the explosion of colours a bit too much, a queer love story that has bland colours would be a tragedy! And most important, they had perfect casting for Nellie! Do I want to cuddle that lovely dog? Yes, I do!




The surprise that I was not expecting was Olivia Colman, playing Nick’s mother. In each scene she had, I loved her! Non-LGBTQIA people don’t realize the importance of having a parent who is accepting, coming out is an event we wished we didn’t need to attend but have to do because assumptions and expectations hurt. When Nick’s mom embraced him for being who he is, many of us wanted that hug when we came out.


Heartstopper will have a positive impact on the next generation of the western audience, who for a long time have wanted wholesome representation in a mainstream TV series. To be precise, they wanted Disney Teen Romance, but queer, and had to settle for romcoms like Love, Simon, which come out once in a blue moon. Heartstopper gives us a world where being different and queer is accepted, and it is not a crime to ask people to be more accommodating and more loving.



I am going to be a tad bit critical of its rapid fame, but I understand why people are raving about it so many weeks after its release. But the followers of the story who hail it as a first of a kind TV adaption of a BL comic need to settle down and browse the internet and look beyond the two centimetre wall of Hollywood boundaries. As I have written above, there are multiple adaptations of BL/Queer/GL comics love stories, but they are not from English-speaking side of the world. And Heartstopper’s author trying to distance herself from the term ‘BL’, is an action I will never appreciate. It is a fantastic BL comics and TV adaption that was created on the solid foundation of BL subculture born as resistance to heteronormative-patriarchy in '60s Japan! Since then, generations of BL creators have used the medium for self exploration and protest, and nurtured them in some of the most homophobic parts of Asia. No two BL stories are alike, nor are all new BL creators aware of this complicated history. Like every other genre, BLs have many problems, which would need an entire scholarly essay of analysis!


Heartstopper's author claiming it is not a BL because there is no explicit sex scenes, and its consumer claim that it is wholesome because there are no dark themes like drugs or alcohol, is demeaning to the entire BL genre and its creators are reducing it to mere category of porn. The BL comics that do not have explicit sex scenes, or what we call as NSFW stuff, are called Shonen-Ai, of which I can mention numerous comics from Japan, South Korea, and China! Just because a series doesn’t have nudity, alcohol, or drugs in it, doesn’t mean it is not dark or is purely wholesome. Anxiety, depression, bullying, and suicide ideation are pretty dark and not wholesome; what is wholesome is having a support system despite all the bad things in this world, and to have an option to heal. Because I have read the Heartstopper comics, I can assure you that it will get dark, because we are going to deal with eating disorders, body image issues, more bullying, and some sad stuff! So see you again when season two comes back!


For recommendations on Wholesome BL Comics and Wholesome BL Comics, read my BL recommendation list which will come out in few days.


Read Heartstopper at Tapas / Webtoon.


All the images in this article have taken from @heartstoppertv page on Instagram.

Watch Heartstopper on Netflix.


 

Aritra Paul is a book editor and digital marketer from India. She enjoys reading manga and webcomics and aspires to be a comic book writer. But mostly spends her time writing fanfictions and uploading pictures of her cat Gucciko, food, and books on her Instagram.

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