Heartstopper creator Alice Oseman on new Netflix series: ‘I hope it puts a smile on your face’
Alice Oseman speaks exclusively to NationalWorld about Heartstopper, adapting their comics into a new Netflix series, and more
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Alice Oseman is the creator of Heartstopper, the beloved webcomic turned graphic novel series turned Netflix series. The series is about Nick and Charlie, two students at an all-boys’ school who start to fall for one another – and the sweet coming-of-age love story that follows makes for one of the most endearing new television shows of the year.
Oseman recently sat down with Alex Moreland to discuss the production of the new Netflix adaptation of Heartstopper, from its early development to the casting process to the changes that had to be made in translating it from the page to the screen.
They also discussed some of Heartstopper’s influences, how it compares to shows like Riverdale and Euphoria, and how they’re anticipating the show’s release might impact the existing fandom that’s built up around the much-loved graphic novels.
So, just to get started, could you tell me a little bit about how the Netflix adaptation of Heartstopper came about?
Back in 2019, the first volume of Heartstopper came out. See-Saw films heard about it, and they were interested. We set up a meeting, I really, really liked them, and I agreed to let them option Heartstopper. Then I worked with See-Saw films for about a year, year and a half, developing Heartstopper into a TV show – and after that, Netflix got interested. We spoke to them, they were really excited about it, and they agreed to let us make the show. Flash forward to 2021, we filmed it – and now it’s about to come out.
I’ve read a couple of the graphic novels – I used to live with someone who’s a huge fan – and this felt to me like probably one of the most tonally faithful page-to-screen adaptations I’ve seen. It seemed like you had quite a lot of creative control?
Yeah, I definitely did – quite a rare amount, to be honest, for an author. Normally, an author isn’t very involved with the adaptation, but I was really lucky See-Saw wanted me to be very involved with it. They let me write all of the scripts, which is really cool. I was very prepared for them to turn around and say, “No, your scripts aren’t very good, we’re going to hire someone else.”
But they didn’t! I got to write them, and I also acted as an executive producer, which gave me a lot of decision making control over all the various aspects of the show. So, because of all of that, I was able to keep the show very true to the comics.
Obviously you’ve written ongoing comics and prose novels – how did you find it, moving into a new medium and writing scripts for television?
Challenging in some ways, but easy in others, I think. The way that I write graphic novels anyway is very similar to a script, because it’s all dialogue and scene directions. So, I was familiar with that side of it, the format of scripts came quite naturally to me.
There were changes that needed to be made to make the story work: the comic is very low tension, and problems are sort of resolved immediately in the comic, whereas in the show we needed a bit more angst, a bit more drama. I had to plot it quite differently, and that is definitely a part of it that I found more challenging!
Could you tell me a little bit about the casting process? You had that open casting – how did that go, what was that like?
Yeah, that was intense. We opened open auditions in January 2021, and we knew we needed to cast everyone in two months – we had two months to do it because we wanted to start filming the show in April. So, it was a really intense process. We had Daniel Edwards, the casting director, and his team doing all of it.
They accepted, or they saw, ten thousand applications for all the roles, and then they were showing us what they thought were the best ones. We couldn’t see ten thousand videos! Yeah, it was intense. But somehow you know, we found them.
Yeah, I thought it was a great ensemble. I’ve also got a little note here that’s just the name of the secret actor [Olivia Colman] in capital letters, too – I was very impressed by that, and I thought it was quite cool that you’re keeping her a secret. [Colman plays one of the parents in Heartstopper, but her casting wasn’t officially announced or acknowledged as part of pre-air marketing campaigns.]
Yeah, totally. I think when that news does go out, lots of people will focus on that wholly, so it’s nice to let the younger actors have the spotlight.
I was curious what you’d say your influences were, in terms of other television specifically? We’re around the same age, and I know we’ve got some of the same touchstones otherwise – I was quite into Artemis Fowl as well, once upon a time – so I was wondering what you might draw on in terms of TV.
TV influences, that’s really interesting. I feel like there aren’t that many shows out there that are sort of aimed towards the same age group [as Heartstopper], because it’s very much in the middle in between adult shows and kids shows.
The one that does come to mind is Love, Victor [a television spinoff of the movie Love, Simon], which I think is mostly marketed towards a similar age group, maybe a little bit older. But for me, my influences are definitely more coming from the YA fiction world and the fact that I’ve been YA fiction author for a lot longer than I have been working in TV. YA fiction is very focused on writing for teens and not writing about teens for adults.
Almost on the flip side of that, how do you think Heartstopper compares to things like Euphoria or Riverdale – stuff that it’s not necessarily that similar to stylistically, but is probably going to be grouped with in terms of genre and audience?
I mean, I think there’s a place for all kinds of shows. Euphoria, Riverdale, Sex Education – I like those shows. But they are about teens for adults. Although teens do watch them, they’re written for adults, and they’re designed to be watched by adults.
Where Heartstopper is different is that its primary audience is teenagers – and we’ve written it so that it can be accessible even to young teens and tweens. Kids who are like ten or eleven can safely watch Heartstopper and enjoy it, and I think that’s really valuable.
You’ve been working on the television show for a few years now – having not made a television show, I can only sort of imagine, but I assume it must be quite an intense, even overwhelming undertaking at times. How did you find managing that on I suppose a personal level, if you don’t my asking?
It has been very intense. When I was writing the scripts for Heartstopper, I was also writing my latest YA novel, Loveless, and having to do those two things at the same time was really, it was too much [laughs]. It was a lot.
I feel like now I’ve been I’ve gotten to the point where I’m like, I’ve been working on so many things for so long that I really need to take a proper break. I haven’t been able to do that for a few years, so I am looking forward to the show coming out and just being able to take a step back from everything and just relax and celebrate all the things that have happened, and recharge for whatever the next thing is.
You interact with fans quite a lot, you seem quite in touch with the fanbase – are you anticipating the Netflix release and the higher profile/attention that’ll attract maybe changing things a bit?
Do you mean will the fan base sort of change?
I guess both in terms of the fan base changing, and the greater spotlight on what was at one point quite a personal thing.
Yeah, yeah. I mean, it definitely will change when the show comes out, for sure. I’ve noticed, even in the past, six months, as the excitement for the show has been building that Heartstopper is getting been getting more and more attention from people. And it does change things – like I remember, even just a couple of years ago, I was able to interact with almost everyone who messaged me on social media who wanted to talk to me about my books, I would always see everyone’s messages, and I would always be able to respond to everyone.
But it’s got to the point where there’s so much now that I can’t do that anymore. It is a little bit of a loss, because I am losing that close personal connection that I have with the readers. I think going forward, I want to keep trying to have a little bit of that connection, even though it can’t be as personal as it used to be. Yeah, pros and cons of [the TV show].
Yeah – I know you’ve said before that once the novels were published you were less able to use tumblr, that you couldn’t use it in the same way anymore.
Yeah, exactly that. Tumblr was one of the first social media that I really used to talk to interact with readers about my books. And then, you know, a couple of two or three years ago, I just had to sort of stop doing that. It’s strange, but it’s also a good sign that the books are doing well! [laughs]
Is there anything you can tell us about a potential second, third, fourth series?
Well, I would love there to be future seasons! I think there's definitely room for that in story. There are more books that we haven't covered yet. But we'll just have to wait and see how season one does, I guess.
Yeah, there’s definitely stuff in some of the later books I’d be quite interested to see on screen at some point. So, finally, just to wrap everything up, what’s the most important thing you’d want someone to take from watching Heartstopper?
For me, it’s just joy. Like, I think the show is so uplifting. For anyone who watches it, the main thing that I would want them to feel is just happiness and just joy and a little bit of enjoyment for four hours. Yeah, if nothing else, I hope that it puts a smile on your face.
Heartstopper begins on Netflix on Friday April 22, with all eight episodes available to stream at once. You can read our review of Heartstopper right here.