Love Without Words: The Silent Narrative of Heartstopper

CW: abuse, racism

Among the Many Interesting Moments From Netflix’s Latest Big Hit Heart stroke, the one that I found particularly revealing about the texture of the series is in the last episode, when the two protagonists Nick (Kit Conner) and Charlie (Joe Locke) are seated next to Alice Oseman – creator of the strip comic book as well as the television series – which sketches the two boys into comic characters on his tablet. The scene communicates to us a relationship between the screen and the page that is both fascinating and slightly disturbing: what has just been adapted to the screen could so easily return to the pages.

Such page screen dynamics works like Heart stroke‘s very premise. The boards of the original comic series, which is currently in its seventh season on the webcomic platform Tapas, are more than enough to serve as quasi-storyboards for the television adaptation. To ensure there is no doubt about the show’s birth from the comics, director Euros Lyn diligently throws away all the BBC’s adult framing and editing. sherlock and Doctor Who out the window, and instead settles for doodle-level cinema: square frames, slide transitions between scenes, not to mention multi-character shots that have Nick, Charlie and their friends framed in literal panels to indicate the synchronicity of their SMS group chat. What we see on screen ends up being not only the same story of the pages, but also the pages themselves.

And this on-screen adoption of the comedy format helps the show hit what’s best for Netflix, or at least its budget. With just eight episodes, each around 30 minutes long, the first season covers three full seasons of content from the original comics. In the Tapas / Webtoon period (one episode every 10 days, also counting Oseman’s interruptions), we are talking about two years of updates. The reason this might happen is the same reason many of us finished the season all at once: rare for the teen drama genre, the series, much like its sketchy source material, is taciturn like a true shy teenager. There’s no “I feel butterflies in my heart” interior monologue when Tao and Elle have their moment in the art room, but actual scribbled butterflies flying around. There’s no “I really feel attracted to you” every time Nick and Charlie almost touch hands, but animated sparks sizzle between their fingers. Even in the climactic moment of the two boys’ first kiss scene, little was said beyond a few lines and the “may I kiss you.” Instead of big confessions that everyone was holding their breath for, there were just the tiny hand-drawn flowers forming a circle around the pair and blossoming fully. While the comic format forbids any long dialogue so as not to tire the reader and leave more room for images, the show has inherited this silence to achieve the same result. As graphic elements replace words, and “Hi” in school hallways replaces confessions of love, Heart stroke becomes light as a feather that tickles more than an elaborate teardrop.

The lightness of comic aesthetics works in Heart stroke‘s favor in many ways, with one in particular that could have accidentally transformed the landscape of the YA TV genre, and in particular LGBTQ+ movies and series. Of Breadwinner (2017) at this year’s Oscar nominee To run away (2021), both of which are animated films that tell true stories, the latter being a true documentary, the power of animation to portray reality and produce authenticity should be familiar to us by now. By seeing the world through designs and colors, parts of reality that tend to be invisible are revealed for all to see, which is why Heart stroke redefined the phrase “show, don’t tell”.

By cutting back on the spoken words and leaving plenty of room for the visuals, the series vividly conveys that teenage feeling – of knowing something deep down without having the words for it. Charlie and Nick may not be good at explaining and defining their relationship with words, but their mutual attraction is clear as day to themselves – and to the audience – through the sparkles and scribbled flower petals, imaginary things that every lover knows to be there without having to see them. The pair might struggle to pin down their connection, but it’s made so evident by the recurring color combination of blue and yellow, on books strewn across classroom desks and on their umbrella as they share a kiss in the rain – that feeling that when you fall in love, it’s as if the very palette of reality is letting you in and being the matchmaker.

Wordless but meaningful colors also work particularly well to portray the experience of discovering one’s sexuality. Although Nick only typed or voiced the word “bisexual” a few times, and wasn’t sure if it applied to him for most of Season 1, the bisexual flag, from pink, blue and purple, follows him from bowling to his friend Harry’s party, where he ends up kissing Charlie for the first time. My favorite graphical detail remains the abundance of backscatter in the show. Little rainbow orbs are often seen as unwanted accidents in photography and film, but just like Nick and Charlie’s friendship-turned-love, some accidents are cute and lovable, which might be why. Heart strokeThe cinematography of deliberately leaves the orbs as they are in the final cut.

As much as there is praise about Heart strokeWith the wordless approach to television, the disappearance of spoken lines also comes with compromises. Even though Heart stroke isn’t determined to portray a high school utopia (which would be the biggest oxymoron of all time), it’s inevitably selective about the events it hosts. Because hardly anyone on the show speaks more than ten words in a single line, little is explored and resolved about the bullying many ethnic minority characters experience. Charlie’s best friend Tao is the perfect sidekick, but we never hear why he’s constantly harassed by white rugby players or why he’s afraid of being isolated at school. Tara’s Instagram is flooded with hostile DMs after announcing her lesbian relationship, while her white girlfriend Darcy doesn’t seem to get the same amount of aggression. She transfers from an all-boys school to an all-girls school and is relieved to no longer be bullied by her cis male peers, but we don’t see her having any friends at the new school besides Tara and Darcy. Since the comic book series doesn’t just tackle the subject of teenage struggles and mental health issues, the series shouldn’t omit the unique issues faced by ethnic minority youth.

Sometimes silence can be poetic and meaningful, an art that Heart strokeThe first season of has clearly mastered it. But other times things require words and actions. In the latest episode, Charlie confronts his abusive ex Ben in an atypical but cathartically long talk. As much as I love flowers, fireworks, and the soft glow of the rainbow, I hope to see more of the same spoken wrath in the next season when needed.

Artwork by Wang Sum Luk

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