Boy Swallows Universe – An epic coming-of-age story

“It has been remarkable to watch screenwriter John Collee turn this thing into a television story, and he’s taken it to places that I never went, that I wished I’d had more space to explore,” says novelist Trent Dalton regarding the TV adaptation of his brilliant, semi-autobiographical and intensely evocative 2018 debut novel Boy Swallows Universe.

With Boy Swallows Universe, Trent Dalton exposed his past, his family and, through the surrounding publicity, his present-day life to the world.

“What excited me about adapting this novel into television was that it’s such a unique story from a very Australian perspective, but at the same time it’s universal because it’s really about family,” says producer Troy Lum.

“We didn’t want to make something that was grim. There’s some dark themes in the book – drug use, domestic abuse, alcoholism, crime – but we made it colourful and magical and light, as seen through the eyes of a child, but without shirking away from the subject.”

Lum and his business partner Andrew Mason have been in the film business all their working lives. Lum was the driving force behind distribution company Hopscotch and Mason produced The Matrix, and Tomorrow When the War Began. Then they started producing films together.

Boy Swallows Universe represents an expansion into television for each of them but, to capture the rich world of the book on screen at the scale it deserved, they very deliberately took the approach that each episode would be like a feature film. Significant resources were required to achieve this. Netflix principally provided those resources with the assistance of the Queensland Government via Screen Queensland and the New South Wales Government.

“It enabled us to reach for the stars in every single department,” says Lum. “It was important to us to have a cinematic team because we wanted to do something that didn’t necessarily look like television. From the production design to the colour palette to the costuming to the casting, everything pops with energy, and that was our ambition.”

Lee Halley as Gus Bell in Boy Swallows Universe S1. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

An epic coming-of-age story set in 1980s Brisbane, Boy Swallows Universe explores the crossroads where a boy becomes a man, good toys with evil, and the everyday meets the extraordinary. Blending the magic and innocence of youth with the brutal reality of the adult world. A lost father, a mute brother, a recovering addict mum, a heroin dealer for a stepfather, and a notorious criminal for a babysitter. Eli Bell is just trying to follow his heart and understand what it means to become a good man, but fate keeps throwing obstacles in his way.

Only the hard of heart will not fall in love with plucky tween Eli Bell (Felix Cameron), his irrepressible curiosity, and the fearlessness he brings to making life better for his mum Frankie (Phoebe Tonkin), his older brother Gus (Lee Tiger Halley) and, for a while there, his stepdad Lyle (Travis Fimmel). But connecting with Eli is nerve-wracking too because of the catastrophic consequences of some of the family income coming from heroin.

Trent Dalton’s debut, Boy Swallows Universe, was published in July 2018 by HarperCollins Australia. It is evocative and imaginative, funny, and rich in detail from real life, pathos, and wisdom. Above all, it is one of those novels that makes readers feel what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes and brain, in this case Eli Bell’s.

The novel is a beloved contemporary Australian classic and worldwide sales across all formats have reached 850,000, including over 100,000 outside Australia. It has been published in 34 other territories, including the US and UK. A television tie-in has just been published in Australia.

Dalton has since written two other novels, All Our Shimmering Skies and Lola in the Mirror. In the last five years he has been Australia’s second highest selling author after Scott Pape, writer of The Barefoot Investor: Five Steps to Financial Freedom and similar titles.

Trent Dalton in Boy Swallows Universe S1. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

There was immediate and significant interest from several production companies wanting to buy film and television rights to the novel.

Sydney-based Catherine Milne, head of fiction at HarperCollins, happens to be in a book group with journalist Deborah Snow. Screenwriter John Collee, who happens to be married to Snow, went along for a discussion about another book and Milne spoke to him about her excitement for Boy Swallows Universe. He read it and in a review for the Sydney Morning Herald, described it as the best Australian novel he’d read in more than a decade.

“Australian fiction and screenwriting have long been obsessed … with the lives of scumbags and criminals,” he wrote. “The genre often tends towards gratuitous sensationalism and it’s a rare talent – Tim Winton and Robert Drewe both come to mind – who can lie in the gutter and still describe the stars. Dalton is a writer in the same league. His dialogue is every bit as funny and accurate as Winton’s, his prose just as evocative, and he’s better at wrapping up the ending.”

Collee called his friends Troy Lum and Andrew Mason, the Australian principals of Brouhaha Entertainment, to talk about adaptation possibilities, only to learn that they and UK producer Sophie Gardiner of Chapter One Pictures were already in discussions about acquiring the rights.

Dalton was also somewhat dazed by the book’s popularity. His instinct was to trust Brouhaha to capture the spirit of the book. It helped that he found Joel Edgerton to be charismatic and charming – the Australian actor/producer/director was also part of the Brouhaha team and met with Dalton.

Before scriptwriting began for the TV adaptation, Dalton took screen writer John Collee on a tour of his hometown, the Queensland capital of Brisbane, and helped him craft the seven episodes. They visited Boggo Road Gaol, Brisbane City Hall, the Darra house then the Bracken Ridge public housing that Dalton
lived in as a child.

“Reading a book, putting it aside and writing from what you remember is often a good way to iron out what’s necessary and unnecessary to the plot,” says Collee about adaptation. But everything readers most love about the novel is in the series, from Frankie’s love of family group hugs to Eli using his imagination to escape his trauma. “The challenge was finding the right tone and the balance between the genuine threat that Eli and his family were constantly confronting, and the book’s humour and wisdom,” says Collee.

“Everything is seen from Eli’s perspective and that brings such a sense of appreciation of magic and a childlike wonder that leavens it all and offers an extraordinary antidote to Australian crime fiction. But occasionally, in the dramatization, you have to show the genuine pain experienced by the adults, with a glance here and a little bit of a commentary there,” says Collee.

Collee was particularly interested in Robert Bell, an alcoholic and a bibliophile based on Dalton’s father. How the character turned out in the series pleased Dalton. “There were no hero moments for Robert Bell in the book,” Dalton says. “I honestly wept when I read the scripts because John gave my dad (Noel) the opportunity he never had in real life, before he passed. Sadly, he never had his great redemptive moment.

“A lot of people will see their Australian dads in that guy. It’s all about the power of redemption, but also just the power of love and the chance to show our kids just how much we love them. I’m a dad and I’m always looking for those moments, and I know my dad searched for them in his life. It’s been so beautiful that the scripts gave Dad those moments.”

The novel has also been adapted by the Queensland Theatre Company, premiering at the Brisbane Festival in September 2021. It was seen by 40,000 people during its six-week run on stage.

Trent Dalton in Boy Swallows Universe S1. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

When Trent Dalton took production designer Michelle McGahey to the Darra house he grew up in, he got down on the ground and pointed out the room under the house with the red phone. He also showed her a box of memories that included sketches by one of his brothers, photographs of his family and information about Slim Halliday.

“The book was the Bible and the guide,” says McGahey. “What he shared with me drove us where we needed to go to bring the book to life.”

Dalton says he thought he’d gone back in time in his own life when he pulled up in front of the set of Lyle’s house. And there was a blue wren flitting about; a recurring mystery in the story is the meaning of the words “Your end is a dead blue wren.” Then, when he went inside and saw the family of four filming, he “wept like an idiot”.

To stay true to the acclaimed novel being based on Dalton’s own childhood, the seven-part series was filmed on location over five months in South East Queensland. It is one of if not the biggest local drama ever made in that state. Production ran for 95 days in 67 locations across five local government areas. On board were about 300 full time and about that many additional casual crew, 243 cast, including stunt people and stand-ins, and more than 1000 extras.

Bharat Nalluri was hired to direct the first two episodes. He relocated from the UK to Australia after marrying an Australian.

Says Lum: “He understands Australian culture and what makes something really Aussie, but he also has an arm’s length view of the culture as well, and we thought that was important in terms of how the story needed to be embraced by a global audience.”

For the second filming block, episodes three to five, the producers wanted a director with “great dramatic chops”, and settled on Jocelyn Moorhouse, of The Dressmaker fame. For the third block of the seven-part series, they desired more of a thriller feel, and chose Queenslander Kim Mordaunt, who made The Rocket, which travelled the festival circuit worldwide.

Dalton took many other key creatives on tours or spoke to them on set or on the phone. He also spent a lot of time with Felix Cameron, who plays Eli Bell. In fact, at one stage during filming, the author stepped in to be the boy’s guardian, driving him to and from set.

The role of Eli Bell is hugely demanding, physically and emotionally. He’s a chatterbox, an old soul, a cry baby and a shit stirrer. He grew up in Brisbane working-class suburbs in a criminal family that didn’t model fear or judgement. By the time he’s a teenager he’s wiser than most adults.

“He (Dalton) was very generous, and I guess we’re quite alike, and maybe I got the role because I just can’t stop talking, a bit like him,” says Cameron.

The fictional Bell brothers have a deep love for each other, are constants in each other’s lives, and each is literally critical to the survival of the other. Lee Tiger Halley was cast as Gus.

“Normally when you do a chemistry audition, it’s to do romantic leads, but we needed to find an instant brotherly bond,” says Lum. “There was a chemistry with these two boys that was pretty undeniable. What we thought would be a really tough casting process actually was made quite easy by how great Felix and Lee were together.”

Lee Halley as Gus Bell in Boy Swallows Universe S1. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

The day after it was confirmed that Nalluri had the gig, he went along to a talk that Dalton was giving. Unannounced and book in hand, he queued for an autograph. When he got to Dalton he handed him a post-it note he’d written on earlier. “I think I’m directing your TV show”, it read.

“Classic Trent Dalton, he exploded, got super excited, almost jumping up on the table, and grabbed me and hugged me. I’d never met the guy and that enthused me even more because you understand why that book works: it’s a reflection of Trent Dalton, who is this kind of battery, like an Energizer Bunny.

“He was our north star. At the outset I said: ‘if we can capture 10 per cent of his hope and his joy and his light, we have a fantastic TV show’.”

Boy Swallows Universe S1. (L to R) Lee Halley as Gus Bell, Travis Fimmel as Lyle Orlik in Boy Swallows Universe S1. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

Trent Dalton studied journalism, then worked for the free weekly Brisbane News, Queensland’s The Courier-Mail and later The Australian. He is fascinated by the humanity of criminals and one of his pet subjects is the homeless. He has won two Walkley Awards, was named Queensland Journalist of the Year at the 2011 Clarion Awards for excellence in Queensland media and has been voted Feature Journalist of the Year Award four times in the National News Awards.

For his first book, non-fiction title Detours: Stories From The Street, published in 2011, he interviewed 20 homeless shelter residents. Boy Swallows Universe was his debut novel and All Our Shimmering Skies was his second. A collection of love stories, again gathered via interviews, came next. Lola In The Mirror, his third novel, was published in late 2023. All three focus on a young person trying to survive within a troubled family. His own upbringing was troubled.

John Collee has written films and television shows in almost every genre: his thrillers include Paper Mask and Hotel Mumbai; Bergerac was a detective story; Star Cops was science fiction; Master and Commander was action adventure set on the high seas; the family dramas The Patriarch and Wolf Totem; Creation was a historical biopic; the big-budget animations Happy Feet and Walking with Dinosaurs; and the very
anthropological Tanna, which was nominated for an Oscar in the foreign language category. Recent projects he’s contributed to include Lee, with Kate Winslet in the lead role as real-life war correspondent Lee Miller, The Return, about the return of Odysseus to Ithaca. He was also a script consultant on Garth Davis’s Foe, Lee Tamahori’s historical epic The Convert and the latest in George Miller’s Mad Max franchise, Furiosa. The British-born former doctor has written documentaries, novels and newspaper features.