The one thing you need to know before watching Boy Swallows Universe on Netflix.

You've probably heard of Australian author and literary nice guy, Trent Dalton. If you don’t know the name, you’ll no-doubt know the name of his best-selling novel, Boy Swallows Universe. 

If you’re not one of the almost a million people who have read the book since its 2018 release but want to get in on the action, you can now watch the Netflix adaptation of the same name, starring Bryan Brown, Anthony LaPaglia, Deborah Mailman, and Simon Baker.

The one thing you need to know before you watch the series is that while the book isn’t entirely autobiographical, it is “about 50 per cent” based on Dalton’s childhood. For Dalton, it’s deeply personal, so he was heavily involved in the TV series, which closely reflects the book.

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Video via Netflix.

The two-time Walkley Award winner’s debut novel broke Nielsen BookScan records for Australia’s fastest-selling debut novel ever. The following year, for the first time in history, it won four major prizes at the Australian Book Industry Awards, including Book of the Year. 


To stay true to the acclaimed novel based on Dalton’s own childhood, the seven-part series was filmed on location over five months in South East Queensland, making it one of the biggest local dramas ever made there.

What's it all about?

The Netflix series, Boy Swallows Universe is described by its creators as “an epic coming-of-age story that brings Trent Dalton’s semi-autobiographical and best-selling debut novel alive by using love, humour and hope to bind the imagination and temerity of youth with the brutal reality and violence of the drug trade.”

Set in the 80s, Eli Bell (Felix Cameron) lives in suburban Brisbane and is determined to make life better for his mum Frankie (Phoebe Tonkin), his watchful older brother Gus (Lee Tiger Halley) and, for a while, his stepdad Lyle (Travis Fimmel) too - all based on real people in Dalton’s life. 

It’s not always easy though because of the catastrophic consequences that come with the family income coming from dealing heroin. At one stage, Eli wakes in hospital to discover his mum is in prison and his stepdad is no longer around. He and his brother are sent to live with their biological father, who stops taking them to visit their mum because of his agoraphobia. 

Eli then devises an elaborate plan to visit the prison on Christmas Day. Fast forward four years, and things become even more messy for Eli and his family, culminating in a gruesome discovery. 

While the subject matter is, at times, grim, Dalton brings warmth and humour to his storytelling, which is carried over into the television series. 


A scene from Boy Swallows Universe. Image: Supplied. 

How true is the story to Dalton’s life?

According to Dalton, the story is “about 50 percent real, and the other 50 per cent is wishful thinking".

“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," he told the Mamamia Book Club podcast. 


“The only thing that isn't real … is that I didn't do what Eli does, I didn't have the balls to do what he does, which is bust into Boggo Road Women's prison.”

But, Dalton says, he wrote the story as though it was him. 

“I'm writing it like, this is what I would have done, I would have done that 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.”

Listen to Trent Dalton on the Mamamia Book Club podcast.

Dalton says Eli is a mix of the man he is not and "another kid". 

“And I think of what Eli would be like now. I'm 40 now and it's like, what would Eli be at 40? And he wouldn't look like me.”

One part of the story close to Dalton’s heart, and his real life, is his stepfather, who he loved dearly, despite his shady lifestyle. 

“He taught me how to kick a footy,” says Dalton. 

"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’.


“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.”

And then, of course, there’s Frankie Bell, based on the woman he loves fiercely, his mum. 

Like Frankie Bell, Dalton’s mum went to jail for two years and had been in love with a complex man - Dalton's stepfather. He says the strength of Eli's desire to see his mum -- who Dalton frequently describes as his hero -- is a reflection of his own intense childhood feelings. 

Also based on truth, is Eli’s lucky freckle, only Dalton’s was on his thumb, not his index finger. 

“I saw this freckle on my thumb. And just thought it was a strange thing. I thought it had some mystical power. I don't know, it's so ridiculous, it’s just a stupid freckle. But it was my kind of go-to thing. 

“So when something dark and horrible was happening in front of my eyes, I looked down at this frickin’ freckle on my thumb. I put it on Eli’s right forefinger for narrative reasons in the book.”

A scene from Boy Swallows Universe. Image: Supplied. 


From book to screen. 

Because Boy Swallows Universe is so close to Dalton’s heart, he was closely involved in its television adaptation. Like the book, the series leans into fiction. 

Dalton took screenwriter John Collee on a tour of Brisbane - his home town, checking out Boggo Road Gaol, Brisbane City Hall, the Darra house as well as the Bracken Ridge public housing Dalton lived in as a child. 

“He (Collee) kindly allowed me to help him craft the episodes, which tell this story in a deeper, bigger, grander fashion than the book,” says Dalton. “It has been remarkable to watch him turn this thing into a television story, and he’s taken it to places that I never went, that I wished I’d had more space to explore.” 


While not every element of a book can be included in a television series, Collee says all the best bits are. 

“Reading a book, putting it aside and writing from what you remember is often a good way to iron out what’s necessary and unnecessary to the plot,” he says. 

“Everything is seen from Eli’s perspective and that brings such a sense of appreciation of magic and a childlike wonder that leavens it all and offers an extraordinary antidote to Australian crime fiction. But occasionally, in the dramatisation, you have to show the genuine pain experienced by the adults, with a glance here and a little bit of a commentary there.” 

The author himself couldn’t be happier with the outcome. 

“It really is incredible. In fact, there’s about a hundred things about it that are better than the book,” Darlton wrote on an Instagram post. 

“I urge you to see for yourself what these extraordinary Australian filmmakers - and this cast - have done with this story.”

Boy Swallows Universe is now streaming on Netflix. 

Feature image: Netflix

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