Recently adapted into a Netflix limited series, Boy Swallows Universe tells the tale of a 12-year-old boy navigating the complexities of his tumultuous childhood in 1980s Brisbane.
The show, which debuted on January 11th, 2024, is based on Trent Dalton’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. Directed by Bharat Nalluri, Jocelyn Moorhouse, and Kim Mordaunt, the series boasts an impressive cast, including Travis Fimmel, Simon Baker, and Phoebe Tonkin.
Boy Swallows Universe was published in 2018 and gained widespread acclaim. The novel is a coming-of-age story and follows the protagonist, Eli Bell, as he navigates a challenging and often chaotic childhood, dealing with family dynamics and the search for identity.
Boy Swallows Universe, both the novel and its Netflix adaptation, invites viewers into a world where reality and imagination intersect. As audiences immerse themselves in Eli Bell’s journey, they have been left wondering how much of the story is based on a true story and how much is fiction.
The true story behind Boy Swallows Universe:
The heart-wrenching story of Eli Bell’s journey into Brisbane’s underworld to save his mother from danger has roots in the author’s own unconventional childhood experiences. In the series, Eli grapples with a heroin-dealer stepfather, a mute brother, a drug-addicted mother, and a notorious criminal as a father figure. Much like the author’s own experiences, Dalton’s childhood was marked by the presence of these conflicting figures, where love and criminality coexisted.
Trent Dalton, the mind behind the poignant tale, shared in an interview with the Townsville Bulletin that his own real-life encounters loosely inspired some aspects of the story. “Mum is my hero. She inspired the character Frankie Bell, and I don’t have enough words in the book to go on about all the things my mum survived, things that other people would have succumbed to.”
Dalton continued, “My mum went away for two years just like Frankie Bell does in the book. Everything that happened in that passage in the book with the kid wanting to see his mum is pretty close to the bone for me.”
Dalton grew up in the 1980s surrounded by two unconventional male role models: his criminal stepfather and family friend Arthur ‘Slim’ Halliday, a convicted murderer known as ‘The Houdini of Boggo Road.’ Despite Slim’s notorious past, Dalton recalls him as a warm and friendly father figure. This dichotomy of a person’s public and private personas is central to the complexity of the characters in Boy Swallows Universe.
While certain aspects of the story are rooted in Dalton’s personal experiences, Boy Swallows Universe is ultimately semi-autobiographical with plenty of flights of fantasy. The retro red rotary telephone, a central element in the series, was inspired by a real childhood memory but takes on a fictionalised significance in the series.
The series, like its novel counterpart, weaves a tale that poignantly balances moments of joy and abandon with sobering notes of grief and fear. You can watch Boy Swallows Universe on Netflix now.