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Phoebe Tonkin in Boy Swallows Universe© Netflix

The tragic true story behind new Netflix show Boy Swallows Universe

Author Trent Dalton was inspired by some of his own formative childhood experiences

Katie Baxter
Freelance Writer
January 11, 2024
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Boy Swallows Universe is the much-anticipated Netflix adaptation of the bestselling debut novel of the same name by Australian author Trent Dalton, with the first episode set to grace our screens on Thursday.

The series will trace the tumultuous childhood of 12-year-old Eli Bell, a working-class boy growing up in 1980s Brisbane with a heroin-dealer stepfather, a mute brother, a drug-addicted mother and a notorious criminal for a father figure. 

Staying true to its Aussie roots, the series is populated with a star-studded cast of Australian actors, including Phoebe Tonkin as Frances Bell, Eli’s mother. 

According to Netflix, the eight-part limited series will portray “an epic coming-of-age story […] that blends the magic and innocence of youth with the brutal reality of the adult world”. 

Phoebe Tonkin and Travis Fimmel in Boy Swallows Universe© Netflix
Travis Fimmel and Phoebe Tonkin in Boy Swallows Universe

The troubled tale tugged at the heartstrings of many Australians when the book was first released in 2018, and it turns out that certain elements of the iconic story were actually loosely inspired by some of the author’s own real-life childhood experiences.

In an interview with the Townsville Bulletin, the author recalls that he himself grew up with two unconventional male role models: his criminal stepfather, and his family friend Arthur “Slim” Halliday, who was a convicted murderer who became infamously known as ‘The Houdini of Boggo Road’. 

Growing up in the 1980s, Trent knew his family friend "Slim" as a warm, fun and friendly father figure. “He was the funniest, kindest old bloke,” Trent told the Townsville Bulletin.

It is hard to reconcile this description with the shocking and serious events that marred Slim’s younger years. After two notorious prison escapes in the 1940s, he would later be accused and convicted of murdering a taxi driver on the Gold Coast by beating him with a pistol in 1952. 

From a young age, Trent was hypnotised by the legend surrounding this man. Likewise, he recalls that his stepfather, an imposing character with taut muscles and skin etched with countless tattoos, was a defining figure in his early childhood. 

He told the Townsville Bulletin: “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 …”

Sophie Wilde in Boy Swallows Universe© Netflix
Sophie Wilde in Boy Swallows Universe

Like his protagonist, Trent had to contend with the fact that the people he loved most in the world during his childhood were simultaneously criminals who were haunted by a shadowy past. 

However, there are many elements of the story that definitely stem from Trent’s imagination rather than his own experiences.  

As seen in the trailer for the series released by Netflix last autumn, much of the story centres around a retro red rotary telephone. Trent recalls that this telephone did actually exist in his stepfather’s home, but in his fictionalised story, he brings this unassuming object into the spotlight. 

He revealed that this childhood memory formed the basis for a major plot point in the story, where he imagines the phone in an eerie underground room and weaves an entire narrative “fantasising about who’s on the end of that phone line”.

Felix Cameron in Boy Swallows Universe© Netflix
Felix Cameron in Boy Swallows Universe

Many of the jolting twists and turns that make up the plot are entirely fictional. Reality and fantasy have been masterfully mingled together to build this fascinating story.

The series, following faithfully in the footsteps of the novel that inspired it, is set to poignantly balance moments of playful joy and reckless abandon with sobering notes of grief and fear, culminating in a heart-wrenching, realist portrayal of life in all its complexity.

The first episode of Boy Swallows Universe airs on Netflix on Thursday 11 January.

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