The Netflix crime drama show ‘Boy Swallows Universe’ is an emotionally riveting tale about a young kid stuck in an unpleasant situation who takes on an adventure full of tumultuous danger and indomitable hope. Set in 1980s Brisbane, the narrative follows Eli Bell, who grows up under the love and care of his mother, Frances, and her partner, Lyle Orlik. However, the young and financially-stricken couple’s involvement in the drug dealing business brings many heartbreaks for the young kid and his selectively mute older brother, August.
Nevertheless, just when things appear too bleak, a ring from a mysterious red rotary phone sends Eli on an Odyssey across Australia’s suburbs. The kid’s adventures include altercations with drug dealers and Christmas jail break-ins for a mother-son reunion. Yet, despite the outlandish idea of a young kid on such undertakings, the show remains ripe with authenticity as it showcases Eli’s complicated childhood. Thus, the question remains: is the show based on a true story?
An Adaptation of Trent Dalton’s Semi-Autobiographical Novel
‘Boy Swallows Universe’ is partially based on a true story. The Netflix show is an on-screen adaptation of Trent Dalton’s eponymous 2018 Aussie novel. Dalton, an award-winning journalist, debuted into the world of literary fiction writing with ‘Boy Swallows Universe,’ a book partially based on his own childhood and life experiences. Consequently, even though the characters within the novel are confined to the world of fictionality, there are real-life counterparts behind most characters that lend them a firm connection to reality.
“I wanted to write a book where the kid does everything that I wanted to do [when I was a child],” said Dalton when discussing his novel in a conversation with ABC TV & Iview. “So people say [so] it’s [‘Boy Swallows Universe’] autobiographical and it is. It’s about 50% real.”
Like the story’s protagonist, Eli, Dalton grew up in Brisbane, Queensland, and oversaw a childhood that stood grim at times. The man has early memories of his mother’s partner, a loving man who fulfilled a fatherly role in Dalton’s life while simultaneously remaining involved in shady, criminal business. “A lot of the book is me just processing things in my head about what the hell happened to that guy [Dalton’s stepfather],” the author told Townsville Bulletin.
Likewise, Dalton’s mother shares many similarities with Eli’s mother, who spends years away from her children in jail. The resemblance between Dalton’s mother and Frances Bell emerges from the fact that the latter harvests most of her inspiration from the former, whom Dalton describes as his hero. “My mum went away for two years just like Frankie Bell does in the book,” he shared in the same interview. “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.”
In the same vein, the character of Eli’s brother August is a culmination of Dalton’s three real-life older brothers, Joel, Ben, and Jess, while the elusive Slim is based on the real-life Queensland criminal, Houdini of Boggo Road, Slim Halliday, Dalton’s real-life acquaintance from his childhood. As a result, much of Dalton’s book extracts real-life inspiration from the author’s life story. Moreover, Dalton’s reality as a child growing up on the outskirts of a major city with a more troubled life than most resonates with a large population who have seldom seen their experiences represented on screen.
For the same reason, the story, steeped in reality, remains even more so. Yet, in the same breath, even though Eli’s narrative is a reflection of Dalton’s experiences, down to the mysterious red rotary phone, they’re just as equally an imagined take on the same. In fact, most of the outlandish adventures Eli embarks on after receiving the call from the telephone are a fantastical account of what Dalton imagines would have happened if he discovered the person on the other end of the line.
“I’m very interested in the child brain and the way it processes its trauma,” said the author. “Across a period of about 15 years, I kind of saw a mess of drug abuse, domestic violence, alcohol abuse, and anxiety. I’ve always wondered, some things I’ve seen growing up, what did it do to you, and how have I processed that?”
Thus, ‘Boy Swallows Universe,’ Dalton’s literary attempt to reconcile with and work through his childhood experiences, remains only partially based on the author’s real life. Nonetheless, the realistic parts occupy significant space within the narrative and shape most of the fictional aspects as well. Since Dalton was an involved participant in the creation of the Netflix adaptation, visiting the set often, the show remains relatively authentic to its source material.
Furthermore, the cast behind the show, including Phoebe Tonkin and Lee Tiger Halley, did their due diligence research by delving into the novel’s pages in varying degrees to gain a better understanding of their characters. As such, like the semi-autobiographical book it’s based on, the show also retains intrinsic ties to reality.