Here's what's fact and what's fiction in Boy Swallows Universe on Netflix.

If you haven’t watched Boy Swallows Universe on Netflix yet, clear an eight-hour block in your calendar and sit the heck down. I’ll wait. Yes, I’ll wait while you watch the entire series, because we need to discuss it openly.

*Twiddles thumbs for a day*

Okay, you done? Now that you’ve finished (and if you haven’t, THIS is your very official spoiler alert), you might have the same questions that I have.

Like… If this show is based on a novel (it is) that’s based on author Trent Dalton’s life (it… also is), how much of it really happened?

Did this kid really go around with his drug dealer stepdad wearing matching Hawaiian shirts and aviator shades? 

Was he truly friends with a convicted murderer? 

Did he actually break into jail to see his mum on Christmas Day?


And… also some answers?

So according to Dalton, the story is a pretty equal split of fact and fiction – which, if you’re across it at all, is still pretty shocking. "It's about 50 percent real, and the other 50 per cent is wishful thinking," he shared on the Mamamia Book Club podcast.

"I created that boy, who really is me. But I needed this boy to walk into places in my own head that I was afraid to go."

His main character, Eli Bell (played bloody brilliantly by Felix Cameron, might I add) "does a lot of what I would have [done if I could]", the author told MediaWeek.


If you've watched (and I know you have, because I waited for you to do this earlier) you’ll know that Eli's mum, Frankie  Bell, goes through some truly horrible situations, from drug addiction to incarceration, and intimate partner violence (in a series of scenes that will send shivers down your spine, thanks to Phoebe Tonkin's incredible portrayal).

And if you’re wondering, yes – Dalton's own mother went through very similar circumstances to Frankie, too.

"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," he told the Townsville Bulletin

"Across a period of about 15 years, I kind of saw a mess of drug abuse, domestic violence, alcohol abuse and anxiety."

Knowing this much, let's dive a bit deeper and pick apart the fact from the fiction, shall we?

Okay, first up: Is Trent Eli? 

He absolutely is, Dalton shared on the Mamamia Book Club podcast. But in Eli, Dalton says he created a kid who was "way savvier, way smarter, way more resilient than I ever was". And he doesn't see himself as that kid anymore. 

Did Trent Dalton's mum really go to jail? 

Frankie Bell loved her sons more than anything – just like Dalton's mum did. Image: Netflix.


“My mum went away for two years just like Frankie Bell does in the book,” Dalton told MediaWeek of his mother's incarceration in the late ‘80s, and he spent most of that period of time "just missing her", he added. 

“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 shared in an interview with the Townsville Bulletin.

So… does that mean Trent broke into jail to see his mum on Christmas?

"You know, my mum loved Christmas and she shouldn’t have been spending Christmas inside a prison,” he told MediaWeek.


And while this particular incident is not fact, it’s something the author told Book Club he wished he'd done.

"I didn't have the balls to do what Eli does, which is bust into Boggo Road Women's prison."

But he did know the landscape, the building – and as he wrote about Eli breaking in to see his mum Frankie, he knew exactly how he would’ve done it himself.

“I'm writing it like, this is what I would have done... Because I know that place, I know where the grassy bit is where we'd meet, and I knew where the walls were, and they're flashes in my head, and I'm taking myself back through those moments.

“And I'm like, I would have run down there, I would have run down that wing. And this is what I would have done if I had a rope, I would have thrown it over there. And it's like therapy.”

Was there really a secret room?

The truth about the secret room (and *that* red phone). Image: Netflix.


The secret escape room is 100 percent real!

When they were scouting locations for filming, production designer Michelle McGahey and Dalton went on a bit of road trip to visit the house Dalton grew up in.

"He hadn't been back there for a long, long time," McGahey told the ABC.

"We pulled up out the front, he knocked on the door and this big dog came out and we're thinking, 'Oh god, we're going to get our arms chewed off.'

"Then someone came out and Trent gave an explanation of who he was and, while he was talking to the chap at the door, I stuck my head underneath the house to see the secret room.

"Trent was like, 'Oh god, I just thought I imagined it. The secret room is really there, it's really there'. But it wasn't really a room. It was more like a box of bricks," McGahey continued.


The red telephone was also real, said Dalton, and it was his older brother Joel who discovered it. Oh, and speaking of brothers... Dalton has three of them, all older, and it turns out that Gus (August, played by Lee Tiger Halley) is an amalgamation of all three. "Joel, Ben and Jesse are Gus," he told Mamamia.

Did Trent Dalton's finger get cut off?

"People grab my hands and they go, 'I must know, I must know, are all your fingers there?'" he shared on Book Club

... And? 

This incredibly visceral, unbearably tense scene is a tough one to watch, and the realness of it has fans convinced it's got to be true. So many are surprised to find out it's pure fiction!

Was his stepdad really a criminal?

Dalton says his stepdad, on whom the character Lyle Orlik is based, was the first man he ever loved. Image: Netflix.


Ah, Lyle Orlik. Lovable but... problematic. And based on Dalton's IRL stepdad, who was – in Dalton's own words – a heroin dealer. 

"The first memory I have is leaning over, I'm on a lounge, and I turned to him. I'm in a brown and yellow shirt. I'm like three years old. I turn to that guy and I say ‘I love you, dad,'" Dalton shared on Book Club

"And this guy's got ginger hair. He turns to me, and he's got muscles and tats, like a really, really well-built dude, and he ruffles my hair and pats my head and goes, ‘man, I love you too, but I'm not your dad.' That's my first memory."

Explaining further in his chat with the Townsville Bulletin, Dalton shared: "That man was genuinely the first man that I ever loved and he was probably in many ways my mum’s true love, the love of her life…

"The difficult part of falling in love with that guy was that he had a pretty shady past and he had some pretty dark activities that he got up to in his downtime."

In fact, Dalton's stepdad had spent 10 years behind bars at Boggo Road Prison before leaving and meeting Dalton's mum.


"That guy holds the record in Queensland for most time spent behind bars."

And what about his relationship with Slim Halliday?

Lee Halley, Bryan Brown and Felix Cameron as Gus, Slim and Eli. Image: Netflix.

Arthur 'Slim' Halliday (played by veteran actor Bryan Brown in the Netflix series) was a very real character in Australian history, and Eli's relationship with him was based on the very true friendship Dalton and his family had with the convicted murderer. Oh, and yes – he really did let Eli drive his car! Well, sort of...


"He'd let me turn the wheel and honk the horn," Dalton told the Townsville Bulletin

"I loved the guy. He was the funniest, kindest old bloke. He was a man who dropped around the house of this guy my mum was in love with. To me he was this mythical guy that my brothers would whisper about when we were playing in the backyard.

"He had a lot of wisdom to offer and he offered it to my mum in some dark times," Dalton shared. 

In the series and the book, Eli is insistent that Slim was innocent of the murder he was put away for – and as for Dalton? 

"On the Boggo Road prison tour they will tell you there is a big question mark over whether he committed the murder,” he said. 

"Slim always maintained his innocence. That said, I’m not going to be the guy defending Slim Halliday."

Feature image: Netflix.

All seven episodes of Boy Swallows Universe are now streaming on Netflix. 

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