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'Beartown:' A Hockey Drama with Something to Say about Sexual Assault

Warning: this article discusses sexual assault

HBO’s Beartown opens on two teenagers meeting in 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 Fredrick 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 its star athletes. 

Book-to-screen adaptations can be tricky as television’s faster pace forces writers to cut scenes or characters that may buck readers’ expectations. Yet even though Beartown was given just five episodes, three of which are less than an hour long, no elements seemed rushed or lacked explanation. Almost all of the characters from the original narrative are included and the scenes from the novel left on the cutting room floor make sense rather than just being a time thing. 

Against the muted snowy background of a small town in Sweden, the village and those who call it home become colorful characters through silent shots rather than extended voiceovers of tedious exposition, a tactic that many adaptations often employ. 

While possibly mismarketed in trailers 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 the death of his son, as he grapples with choosing between his team and his family. Peter begins coaching the junior hockey team—a substantial undertaking, as the team shoulders the responsibility of putting their forgotten 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 endures. 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 pause before watching a new show, viewers of Beartown need not worry. The performances and storylines are incredibly captivating, making the language difference an afterthought. The series would not have been as impactful if not set in its original location, the frozen town becoming a character itself as it is forced into the cold action of introspection. Will they believe the 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 sexual assault cases throughout the world, as women are often painted as the villains that take away a man’s future. This series is even more relevant in light of Minnesota's ruling that if someone becomes voluntarily intoxicated and is raped, the consequences fall upon them rather than the rapist. Under this order, 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 own 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; 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 contained to the sports drama genre, 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 feel real and raw, highlighting the overbearing parents and rink politics, the locker room talk, and the complex coach-player dynamic.

Frederick 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 met variations of, providing a personal lens to a familiar story. While condensed, the series does not lose Backman’s essence of relatable emotion and societal critique.

Beartown provides a dark, 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.

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