A Magical Adaptation of Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe

January 10, 2024

What was it like growing up in a housing estate in Australia in the 1980’s? I know as I was there. You can find out in the new Netflix adaptation of Trent Dalton’s global bestseller Boy Swallows Universe. This magical and honest novel has just been adapted by Netflix as a brilliant and thoroughly entertaining seven-part series.

After attending the star – studded Global Premiere right here in Brisbane and having a sneak peek at the first two episodes, I can tell you it is a story filled with family, friendship and love, lots and lots of love … but also a story of crime, corruption, alcoholism, domestic abuse and violence. Underlying all this is hope. 

If you are one of the handful of people in the world who has yet to read this novel you will be engrossed in this unique story, loosely based on the author’s life. It tells the coming-of-age story of Eli Bell who lives with Gus the brother who does not speak, his beautiful mother, Frankie and his loveable larrikin drug dealing stepfather, Lyle. His babysitter is the notorious Boggo Road former inmate, Slim Halliday. We also meet his troubled but well-read Dad, Robert. 

Eli is a happy kid growing up in the Aussie sunshine, but he knows that some things in his life don’t quite fit. Being an inquisitive kid, he asks too many questions and finds himself getting into all sorts of sticky situations. Sounds like he could make a good journalist one day! Along the way he falls in love, gets caught up in some shady deals and dreams of living in the best place in the world, The Gap. I may be biased there. Eli is always searching for the meaning of being a ‘good man’. 

I felt like a proud Auntie watching the glittering cast arrive to share Trent’s story on the screen. There was so much love and care taken to produce this high quality and uniquely Australian adaptation. The cast boasts some of our greatest talents with an outstanding performance from Phoebe Tonkin (Vampire Diaries) as mum, Frankie. She plays the role with vulnerability, grace, strength and joy. Bravo, Phoebe!

Then there is the talented Travis Fimmel, who moved mountains to be at the premiere. He plays Lyle Orlik with a tenderness which will make you fall in love with this flawed drug dealer, who is ultimately trying to create a better life for his family. Bryan Brown as Slim Halliday reminds me a lot of my dad, flawed but kind, respectful but tough. He teaches young Eli Bell many life lessons. Anthony LaPaglia is almost unrecognisable and quietly menacing as Tytus Broz. Simon Baker is wonderful, as always, as the flawed and terrifying but often gentle Robert Bell. 

But it is the youngsters who steal the show. Lee Halley is probably my favourite character in the role of August Bell. His expressive face conveys so much. Words are not needed. Felix Cameron as Eli was an inspired bit of casting. He’s cheeky and inquisitive yet warm and engaging. He loves a good cry, much like the book’s author and the play of emotions on his face is a joy to watch. He carries much of the dialogue and action and interacts so well with the experienced cast.

Boy Swallows Universe shares universal themes of brotherhood, finding our place in the world, overcoming life’s obstacles and love of family. Trent says it is ultimately a story of love and that he never could have imagined the little moments of love that have come from making this series. The guests at our screening all loved it too and I was only sad that we had to stop after two episodes. 

This page to screen adaptation is very true to the well-loved novel and lovers of the book are in for an emotional time filled with all the humanity, humour and terror from the original story. I don’t think even the eternally optimistic Trent Dalton himself could envisage that it could get this good.

This original series can only be seen on Netflix and will screen from January 11. 


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