Netflix’s ‘Boy Swallows Universe’ follows the turbulent life of Eli Bell, a 13-year-old boy who wants nothing more than a stable life with his brother, Gus, and their mother, Frankie. Their biological father is estranged and out of the picture, and they have a loving stepfather who is a drug dealer. His dangerous endeavors finally catch up with him, leaving Frankie in prison and Eli and Gus in the care of their alcoholic father. Considering all the ups and downs that Eli and his family go through, the viewer is forced to wonder if someone could actually survive all this in real life. Is Eli inspired by a real kid who went through this turmoil?
Eli Bell is the Alter Ego of Author Trent Dalton
‘Boy Swallows Universe’ is an adaptation of the book of the same name by Trent Dalton, who based Eli on himself, at least partially. The author revealed that the book is 50/50 fact and fiction, with Eli being an exaggerated version of himself, living an alternate version of Dalton’s life. While the bigger things and events in Eli’s life are fictional, Dalton rooted the young boy in his own childhood. Dalton grew up in a housing commission property in Bracken Ridge in Brisbane, which also serves as the background for Eli’s story.
Much like Frankie and Lyle, Dalton’s mother and stepfather were involved in drugs, and at one point, his mother went to prison and served two years there. Like Simon Baker’s Robert, Dalton’s father was an alcoholic and a compulsive reader who owned hordes of books. Dalton grew up with three brothers, but when it came to bringing them into the book, the author created a single character, Gus, to represent them.
While Dalton laid the foundation for Eli’s story through his own life story, he changed the outcome and the further chain of events. The author calls the book “wishful thinking” in most parts, saying that he often imagined what he would have done had he been in certain situations and then wrote all of that down for Eli in the book. For example, Eli’s prison break to meet Frankie on Christmas was what Dalton had dreamed of doing for his own mother.
Dalton’s mother spent two years in jail in the late 80s, during which time Dalton terribly missed her. All he wanted on Christmas Day was to spend it with his mother, but he couldn’t. It was also more difficult because his father wouldn’t take him and his siblings to meet their mother. Like Robert, Dalton’s father also suffered from anxiety and agoraphobia. Dalton also later confessed that it was somewhat wise of his father not to have them see their mother in prison and in the condition she was at the time. This is when he fantasized about breaking into prison and meeting her there. He couldn’t do that in real life, but when he started writing Eli’s story, he gave the boy the opportunity to do that for his mother.
Another thing that Dalton took from his childhood into the book was the escape room and the red phone. In the movie, the red phone becomes Eli’s connection to the mystical, with a mysterious voice talking to him through the phone. In real life, there was no mysterious caller, but there was a red phone, which was a source of endless imagination for Dalton and his brothers. Dalton also took his friendship with Arthur “Slim” Halliday, the man convicted of the murder of a traffic driver, into the book. Like Eli, Dalton spent his childhood years with Halliday and had an unexpectedly good relationship with him.
Trent Dalton is Today a Journalist
Trent Dalton lives in the Greater Brisbane Area with his wife, Fiona Franzmann, who is a journalist and the inspiration for the character of Caitlyn Spies in ‘Boy Swallows Universe.’ They met while working at Brisbane News magazine, which is also where Dalton got his first job. They have two daughters. Currently, Dalton works at News Corp Australia as a writer and has a successful career as a novelist, with several bestsellers under his belt.
Dalton has won several awards for his journalism and novels. He is a two-time Walkley Award-winner and three-time winner of the Kennedy Award for Excellence in NSW journalism, and he has won the National News Awards Features Journalist of the Year four times. He has also been named Queensland Journalist of the Year at the Clarion Awards for excellence in Queensland journalism. Apart from this, Dalton has also won the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing and received several literary awards for writing ‘Boy Swallows Universe,’ which has sold millions of copies worldwide. He also supports several charities that help people in need and make the world a better place.
Talking about how much of his life is in the novel, Dalton said that for him, it was a way to see an alternate form of his life, of how things could have turned out, if something had happened differently, what it could have been life, not just for him, but also his family. He brings the same sensibility and raw emotions in his other books, ‘Lola in the Mirror’ and ‘All Our Shimmering Skies.’ Apart from fiction, he has also dabbled in non-fiction, in which he has written three books. Talking about the Netflix series, Dalton said that the show has done a great job of bringing the characters to life and, in turn, portraying his own childhood in a near-accurate light.