Boy Swallows Universe is an almost flawless piece of Australian TV, but there’s one problem.

Adapting a story from the page to the screen doesn't always pay off

Sometimes the story just works better in writing than it does visually. Or maybe the casting wasn't right, or the story didn't stay loyal to the original text.

But when it works, it really works. Look no further than Netflix's Boy Swallows Universe based on Trent Dalton's semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. The book was hugely successful both locally and internationally, drawing in unprecedented sales for an Australian literary debut.

It was an obvious next step for the book to be turned into a screenplay and in the capable hands of Hotel Mumbai writer John Collee has become a seven-part Netflix limited series. 

The coming-of-age series is directed by Bharat Nalluri (Shantaram), Jocelyn Moorhouse (The Dressmaker), and Kim Mordaunt (The Rocket). The cast includes Travis Fimmel, Phoebe Tonkin, Simon Baker, Sophie Wilde, Lee Tiger Halley, and Felix Cameron in a career-launching turn as young Eli Bell.

Watch the trailer for Boy Swallows Universe. Post continues after video.

Video via Netflix. 

Dalton served as an executive producer on the series, which stays close to the source material, telling a uniquely Australian yet universal story of how a young boy and his brother navigate growing up in a family riddled by addiction, crime, and violence. 


Set in 1985 in the working-class Brisbane suburb of Darra, the tale is narrated by the Bell family's youngest son Eli. This 13-year-old and his mostly mute older brother Gus have a harder life than most, with their mother Frankie (Tonkin) a recovering addict, his stepdad Lyle (Fimmel) a chaotic drug dealer, and his actual father Robert (Baker) a volatile alcoholic. 

Add to the mix, an evil drug lord named Ivan Kroll, a murderer-turned-confidante Arthur 'Slim' Halliday (Bryan Brown), a prison pen pal Alex Bermuda (played by rapper Adam Briggs), a crime reporter Caitlyn Spies (Sophie Wilde), a corrupt business magnate Tytus Broz (played with some real Colonel Sanders cosplay energy by Anthony LaPaglia) and the fact that Gus mostly only communicates through cryptic air-writing, and you've got one hell of a ride ahead.

And all things considered, this could have turned out terrible. 

The supernatural elements of the story could have come across as overly cartoonish and trite. The young cast and narrator could have made the series feel infantile. The more dark and sinister storylines might have clashed with the light and upbeat tone of the narration. 

Thankfully, none of this happened. It just works. 

Boy Swallows Universe is an exquisite piece of Australian television – it's one of the country's best shows ever created. It's the kind of TV show that will be carried through generations, it will be watched and rewatched, it will be studied in schools and its magic attempted to be recreated in future Australian filmmaking. 


The Bell family. Image: Netflix. 

Beginning with the cast, Felix Cameron leading the ship for most of the series as young Eli was a revelation: loveable, heartfelt, spunky, and unpredictable, all the qualities a trusted protagonist should have. But while Felix was an obvious standout, Lee Tiger Halley's Gus shouldn't be overlooked either, as the actor perfectly portrayed the older brother's quiet stoicism, grace, and kindness. 

Travis Fimmel and Simon Baker both give career-best performances, but it's hard to focus on anyone else when Phoebe Tonkin is in the scene. As the family matriarch, Tonkin delivers a stunning and nuanced depiction of the complexities that come with parenting while in the throes of addiction, toxic relationship patterns, and domestic violence.


The series is visually stunning and steeped in Australian nostalgia. Filmed in Brisbane, the cinematography from directors of photography Shelley Farthing-Dawe and Mark Wareham captures the '80s in suburban Queensland, a time defined by mullets, thongs, and musk sticks with Wheel of Fortune playing on the TV to the competing cackle of neighbouring kookaburras. 

Speaking of sounds, the soundtrack transports the viewer back in time with the unmistakably Aussie flair of INXS's 'Devil Inside' and Skyhooks' 'Horror Movie' giving a more holistic authenticity to Eli's world. 

In the same vein that Heartbreak High seamlessly reflected Sydney's Maroubra, Boy Swallows Universe nails Brisbane, with the streets lined with Queenslander homes and Jacaranda trees.

The story itself is confronting at times, but thankfully undercut by an Australian sense of wit which allows us to laugh in the face of horror and tragedy. But despite the twists and turns, the narrative is always believable, which is probably because the book is based partly on Dalton's real life. 

There was one storyline that felt mishandled and it involved Baker's character, Eli and Gus' father Robert. 

It's impossible to separate Robert from an incident that happened a few years back while camping when Robert drove a car carrying himself and his two sons into a lake. 

In an emotional scene, Robert claims it happened because of a panic attack.  


Simon Baker as Robert. Image: Netflix. 

Because of Robert's emotional outburst, Eli and Gus forgive him even though they've carried years of trauma from nearly dying in the crash. 

But this is only one version of the events – it's unclear if he drove into the lake intentionally or accidentally and given Frankie has become estranged from him since the incident, it's not a stretch to assume she thought he had tried to kill their sons. 

The tragic tale of a man killing his children while in a dysfunctional relationship is a story that Australians have heard many times in the news. It's a tragic conclusion that happens far too commonly and typically points to domestic violence being rampant in a family. 


Whether Robert intentionally tried to kill his sons or not, there's no clear resolution to the scene, other than from Robert's perspective, who proves throughout the series to not be the most reliable storyteller.  

Let's not forget that the character is introduced while chasing Eli with an axe during a drunken episode. As the series unfolds, he sobers up and becomes a much more pleasant person to be around. 

The series even alludes to a reunion between Robert and Frankie as the family's bond is sealed through trauma. 

This just feels a bit off considering the father's history with the family, as if the viewer has to accept that all of Robert's issues stemmed from alcoholism. 

Someone being considered the devil when drunk but a saint while sober sounds like a convenient excuse. 

This was a surprising plot point given how the series approaches other domestic violence instances. In the case of Frankie's post-prison partner Teddy, the series delicately tackles the ways poverty, crime, and addiction can intersect with and exacerbate instances of domestic violence. 

That being said, the treatment of Robert is a small criticism of a beautiful coming-of-age story. It's raw, honest, unapologetically Australian, surprisingly upbeat amid tragedy, and with a lot of heart. 

Boy Swallows Universe is now streaming on Netflix.

Feature image: Netflix.