WHAT DO A PLAYGROUND and a prison yard have in common? According to the Netflix adaptation of Trent Dalton’s bestselling novel Boy Swallows Universe: a lot. Jailhouse politics come in handy for the plucky, puckish 12-year-old Eli Bell, played by newcomer Felix Cameron, whose nose for adventure lands him—and his family of small-time crims—in hot water time and time again.
It’s the 1980s in Brisbane’s outer suburbs, a place where you can’t take anything at face value. A schoolmate by day might be a kingpin by night; the adults are always creeping around in the shadows and there’s a mysterious bunker underneath Eli’s house where a phone with a disembodied voice keeps ringing. Faced with these circumstances, what’s a boy gotta do?
Capricious and sprawling, the adaptation is every bit as slippery as its novel; it’s a genre-mashing, decade-spanning epic, which traverses sewerage pipes, drug dungeons, and the gelid depths of outer space. It is a story of dualities: of domestic rituals and supervillain schemes; of schoolyard pranks and gangland savagery; of working-class life and starry-eyed dreams. It’s so expansive, you might as well say that it will, in fact, swallow the universe.
Of course, all of this is common knowledge for anyone with half an eye trained on their local bookstore. Boy Swallows Universe was Dalton’s fiction debut when it came out in 2018 and in the years since, it has sold close to a million copies, including 100,000 overseas. Accolade after gleaming accolade followed its release: so many that award stickers now fight for space on newer copies of the book. And that cover! An eruption of pink, emblazoned with the blue wren that becomes a motif throughout the novel. It’s a cover that sits on more Australian bookshelves and nightstands than it doesn’t.
It was on one of those nightstands that director Bharat Nalluri, who helms the first two episodes of the Netflix series, initially encountered the book. Nalluri, who was born in India and grew up in the UK, was looking for a rental when he moved to Australia just before Covid. “Everywhere we went, they all had Trent’s book by the bed,” he laughs when we catch up. “It was Jane Austen and Boy Swallows Universe.”
Such is the ubiquity of Dalton’s novel. It might seem surprising for a tale with such personal origins: amidst the pandemonium, Boy Swallows Universe is semi-autobiographical, based on Dalton’s own upbringing in Queensland with a mother who spent time in jail and a stepfather who was a heroin dealer. Like Eli, the tweenaged scamp of the book, Dalton was babysat and mentored by a convicted murderer (played by Bryan Brown) who’d been a prison hero in a former lifetime for his legendary escapes. Like Eli, Dalton grew up with the stench of uncertainty always circling his head, grasping for scraps of solid ground in a world where violence loomed large.
Dalton’s superpower, says Nalluri, is his outsized earnestness. “It could’ve easily been a very dark, miserable book about some poor kid’s journey through a life of drugs and crime. But somehow, he gives it hope and redemption and joy.” An indefatigable optimism threads through the writing. “Things are gonna get so good you’ll forget they were ever bad,” multiple characters repeat in the series. It’s an arms-outstretched mantra towards the future.
That sweeping optimism, Nalluri thinks, is what makes Boy Swallows Universe travel across different mediums while resonating with diverse audiences. The Netflix series is the novel’s second re-imagining after a 2021 stage adaptation became the Queensland Theatre’s biggest-selling show in history. “It’s a young boy and his search for his family,” Nalluri says. “He will go red in the face when I say this, but I think—I think Dalton is the new Dickens.”
Did Nalluri ever feel the pressure of so many adoring fans? He shrugs: “[I was] very naive. Maybe it was the naivety that fuelled us.” Impressing Dalton, though, was a different story. The author was an executive producer on set, and Nalluri was intent on doing justice to Dalton’s life. “Trent’s our north star. He’s like the Energizer Bunny. When you stand next to him, you get completely charged up.”
During shooting, Dalton became a barometer. “I’d point to Trent and look at his face, and I could see if it was resonating,” Nalluri says. It was the same for the actors playing Dalton’s nearest and dearest—a constellation of stars including Bryan Brown, Deborah Mailman, and Anthony LaPaglia. At the centre, of course, are Dalton’s parents: Phoebe Tonkin as Eli’s sweet, suffering mother and Simon Baker as his well-intentioned, if oafish, father. “I don’t consider what they did an act of performance,” Dalton says of the cast. “I consider what they did an act of generosity.”
The series recreates the setting of Dalton’s childhood in painstaking detail, shot on location in Darra—a Brisbane suburb half an hour out of the CBD, once known for its heaving cement factory. “Darra is a dream, a stench, a spilt garbage bin, a cracked mirror, a paradise,” Dalton writes in Boy Swallows Universe. The suburb gleams on screen, haloed with nostalgia and suffused with Dalton’s romance and reverence even in its most brutal moments—like the show’s cold open, which plays out like a bloody mafia thriller before Eli’s voiceover interrupts the proceedings, sunny and buoyant. “You know,” he trills, “life is really different when you grow up in a family of outlaws.”
In the production process, Dalton unearthed old photo albums for reference and plied Nalluri with soundtracks from his childhood. (The Angels plays over a pivotal scene in Brisbane’s Boggo Road Gaol.) In one expedition, Dalton took the crew on a personal tour of the streets of his past—many of which had remained surprisingly unchanged. A Vietnamese restaurant that, in the series, plays host to a drug conspiracy, still bears the same disco ball from Dalton’s youth. “Trent was crying at times explaining it,” Nalluri says.
It wasn’t the only occasion that Dalton would be so moved. “There were many days he arrived on set and just burst into tears,” Nalluri says. “Like when he saw his kitchen from his youth recreated in front of him in the same colours.”
Dalton goes even further. “They recreated… every amber ashtray, every styrofoam stubby cooler, every Benson and Hedges cricket poster, every hole in the wall, every hole in the heart of my mum,” he says. “I stepped right into my own brain. [The] most bizarre and confronting thing a bloke could ever do.”
For Nalluri, the success of the series rested on just one question: “What’s Trent going to think about this?” Perhaps he needn’t have worried. One recent weekend, Dalton sat down with his entire family—his mother, his wife, and their two teenage daughters. For hours they stayed transfixed, trading long-held tales of family lore between each episode.
“I cried so much I got thirsty. Emotionally dehydrated,” says Dalton. “My daughters were seeing parts of their grandparents’ lives that they had no clue about, unfolding in the most unlikely place. It was the strangest, most cathartic, and beautiful television binge-watch any of us will ever possibly be a part of.”
Boy Swallows Universe airs on Netflix January 11.