Warning: this article discusses sexual assault
Beartown opens with two teenagers running through the snow-covered woods of Sweden. One is running, both from his problems and from himself. The other has a shotgun in her hands, pointed unshakingly at his head. This is not your typical coming of age drama.
Rising streaming giant HBO Max recently developed the extremely popular Fredrik Backman novel Beartown into a five-episode limited series through their European sector. The intense Swedish drama highlights the toxicity of sports culture and just how far a community will go to protect the athletes that raise them up.
Book-to-screen adaptations can be tricky. While writers are seemingly given control over a script, they are forced to cut scenes or characters that may throw off the pacing of the series. While a book has chapters upon chapters to develop characters and give proper exposition, most shows are only given around twenty minutes to hook viewers and allot just enough background to keep them interested. Though Beartown was given just five episodes, three of which are less than an hour long, nothing seemed rushed or lacking an explanation. Almost all of the characters are included from the original narrative and it was abnormally unnoticeable which scenes were left on the cutting room floor and which made it to the small screen. Against the muted snowy background of a small town in Sweden, the village and those who call it home become colorful characters often through quiet or silent shots rather than extended voiceovers and tedious exposition that many adaptations often employ. The relationships between characters come to life in this sometimes blunt but still pertinent and realistic story.
While possibly mis-marketed as the rise of a hockey team and its new coach, Beartown follows Peter Andersson and his family’s move to his native town of Bjornstad (Beartown), Sweden, after the depletion of his NHL career and death of his son. Peter begins coaching the junior hockey team—a substantial undertaking, as this team shoulders the task of putting their dying town back on the map. Kevin Erdhal is the star of this team and the town, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the residents of Beartown worship the ground he walks on. When Kevin rapes Peter’s daughter, 15-year-old Maya, this unconditional adoration is unharmed. In defending herself, Maya is flung into a battle of politics and accountability that both engrosses and shatters the small town.
While subtitles can be cumbersome for many and may cause audiences to hesitate before watching a new show, viewers of Beartown need not worry. The performances and storylines are completely engrossing, making the language difference an afterthought. The series would not have been as impactful if not set in its original location, the snowy backdrop becoming a character itself as the town is forced into the cold action of introspection. Will they believe this outsider? Or will they support the boy who has lived in Beartown and endured its harsh environment with them, side by side, all his life.
“She’s fifteen, above the age of consent, and he’s seventeen, but he’s still ‘the boy’ in every conversation. She’s ‘the young woman.’ Words are not small things.” Backman remarks in his 2016 novel. Five years later, his words still ring true. Set in Sweden, a country with much stricter laws regarding rape than America, Backman’s story illustrates that the obstacles latent in reporting rape exist everywhere. This quote could be used to describe countless rape cases across America, as women are often painted as the villains that take away a man’s future rather than the victims that they are. This series is even more relevant in light of the state of Minnesota's ruling that if someone becomes voluntarily intoxicated and is raped, then the consequences fall upon her rather than the rapist. If following this ruling, Maya would not be able to seek justice for Kevin’s appalling act that forever alters her life.
Unlike many American shows, HBO’s European sector understands just how powerful age-appropriate casting can be. Miriam Ingrid, who plays Maya, is 17 while Kevin Erdhal’s hockey player turned actor Oliver Dufåker is 20. While they do not play the characters’ exact ages, 15 and 17 respectively, their actual ages are close enough to their characters that they convincingly and authentically remember what it was like to be that age. Beartown does not fall into the trap of casting 27-year-olds to play teenagers, an act that arguably removes viewers from a narrative and renders it unconvincing. These fresh actors bring all the emotion of their teenage years to the forefront of their challenging roles—and it pays off, resulting in a beautiful portrayal of Backman’s narrative by both the primary and ensemble casts.
Another strength of Beartown is its conviction that the rape actually took place. For the viewers, there is no time taken up by the contemplation of whether the action happened or not. There are only cover-ups and the evasions of consequences.
While not necessarily contained to the category of a sports drama, the limited series illustrates both the harrowing fallout of rape and just how much is placed on the shoulders of athletes. The hockey games and practices also feel incredibly real and raw, highlighting the overbearing parents and rink politics, the locker room talk, and the complex coach-player dynamic. The show is reminiscent of Friday Night Lights. Granted, Beartown provides a much darker, twisted lens of just how far a small town will go to protect its athletes, or even just its boys, that they have gambled their hopes and futures on.
Fredrik Backman’s bestseller Beartown offers a much needed discussion surrounding what happens when accountability seems impossible in the face of immense power. It is packed with characters that readers are sure to have encountered before, which offers a personal lens to a familiar story. While condensed, the series does not lose Backman’s essence of relatable emotion and societal critique.