I’ve mentioned Fredrik Backman’s novel Beartown (and its sequel) a few times on the site, and I often recommend it to friends because it’s my favorite novel of the last 5 years. I always describe it as Friday Night Lights but with hockey, and like FNL, you don’t actually need to understand or love the sport to appreciate it (I do not, for instance, watch hockey).
The novel is about a small town in Sweden that is utterly obsessed with hockey. The one NHL star that the town produced, Peter Andersson, returns from Canada to coach his old team back to greatness, and he has a 17-year-old phenom named Kevin Erdahl to build his team around. It’s important to note here that the livelihood of this time depends on the hockey team, and so when Kevin Erdahl rapes Peter’s 15-year-old daughter, it sends shockwaves through the town when Peter must decide whether to kick Kevin off the team.
It’s a story about struggling small towns, and it’s about rape culture, and it all gets packaged into this incredible underdog movie formula. I treasured the book because it reminded me so much of Friday Night Lights and the way it humanizes all the characters and emphasizes the importance of hockey to their lives in a realistic way, as in: Maybe one kid gets out. Maybe another kid uses the leadership skills he gained from hockey to get a decent job, but the majority of the players will end up alcoholics working in a factory or unemployed and talking about those games as the best days of their lives. Hockey is a way of life, but it doesn’t provide much of a life for them.
The novel also doesn’t erase the experience of Maya, Peter’s daughter. It’s as much her story as anyone’s (especially in the sequel), and we witness how she is retraumatized by that rape over and over, when she tells her parents, when she tells the police, when she returns to school and absorbs the stares and looks of her classmates, and again and again when the townspeople blame her for the poor play of the hockey team.
It’s a hard book, but Backman imbues it with warmth and tenderness, and the way he approaches hockey is not that dissimilar to the way Nick Hornby approached soccer in Fever Pitch. He makes it relatable on a fundamental human level.
The novel was recently adapted by HBO Nordic and turned into a five-part Swedish series, which HBO Max began airing this week. What’s fascinating about it is how similarly the details in the series are to the novel, but the tone is different. It’s darker. Grittier. The tone is like that of Scandi noir. That’s not in the least an insult — I’m going to watch the hell out of this series — but it is decidedly different in tone from the tenderness and compassion of the novel.
I do wonder, however, how much of that is Fredrick Backman and how much of that is Marin Ireland. I should mention that I listened to the audiobook of the novel, and those among us who frequently listen to audiobooks know how much a narrator matters. Backman is one of my favorite authors in recent years, but also Marin Ireland has narrated his last four novels. To me, they’re kind of a package deal. (For those who do not listen to Audiobooks, Ireland is also an actress, best known recently for her roles in Umbrella Academy and Sneaky Pete).
It’s so interesting to watch the TV series, however, and see just how differently the tone is translated. I do even wonder a little bit about which version Backman had in mind when writing the novel. It is a story about the experiences of 15-year-old girl who is raped by the town’s golden boy, but it’s also a story about hockey, and hearty, blue-collar men from small towns where the temperatures are regularly well below zero. Hearing Marin Ireland interprets the coach, Peter Anderson, is much different than when Ulf Stenberg plays him in the series. It makes a difference to have a woman relay these stories of masculine, Nordic men.
I think that 90 percent of it is that Marin Ireland is a phenomenal audiobook narrator; in fact, I have sought her work out in other audiobooks, which are also good, although there is something particularly potent about the combination of Ireland and Backman. But I do think that part of it is also having this story being told by a woman, as opposed to the series, which is directed by a man, Peter Grönlund. The series is good — don’t get me wrong — but they are very different interpretations of the same stories. The words are there. Backman wrote a hell of a novel, but I’m interested in seeing if the series can be as empathetic toward Maya as Marin Ireland is, because that is crucial to the effectiveness of the entire story. It makes the difference between Friday Night Lights with hockey, and a dark, Scandanavian drama, and while both can be very good on their own terms, my guess is that it’s the 15-year-old rape victim who gets short shrift in the latter.
Speaking of audiobooks: Does anyone else have favorite narrators? Besides Marin Ireland, I love Julia Whelan and Jennifer Lim.
Header Image Source: HBO