Real Life

Shocking true story behind Boy Swallows Universe

The hit Aussie Netflix series is loosely based on the childhood of author Trent Dalton.
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As a novel, it topped bestseller lists for months and now, the adaptation of Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe has yielded even more winning results!

The series, starring Simon Baker and Travis Fimmel, debuted on Netflix at number two in Australia upon its release this month.

WATCH NOW: Trent Dalton wins Book of the Year at 2019 Australian Book Industry Awards. Article continues after video.

Set in 1980s Brisbane, the story follows Eli Bell, a precocious, working-class boy growing up with a heroin-dealer stepfather, a mute brother, a drug-addicted mother and a notorious criminal for a father figure. It’s a dark tale, and one inspired by Trent’s upbringing.

Like his protagonist, Trent had to grapple with the idea as a child that the people he loved more than anything in the world were also criminals.

The two who young Trent revered most were his criminal stepfather and a family friend named Arthur ‘Slim’ Halliday.

Trent Dalton
Trent penned the novel inspired by his own childhood (Credit: Supplied)

Halliday was convicted in 1952 of murdering a taxi driver on the Gold Coast by beating him with a pistol. He was dubbed the ‘Houdini of Boggo Road’ due to his many break-outs from the gaol of the same name.

But to Trent, Halliday was just the “funniest, kindest old bloke” who babysat him and his siblings. In the book, Trent’s brothers Joel, Ben and Jesse have been merged into one fictional character, August. He is mute and writes prophetic messages in the air.

criminal headshot
Convicted family friend Arthur ‘Slim’ Halliday regularly escaped Brisbane’s Boggo Road Gaol

It was when his stepdad was taken away by police that Trent felt a need to uncover more about his secret life by writing a book.

“Across a period of about 15 years, I kind of saw a mess of drug abuse, domestic violence, alcohol abuse and anxiety,” Trent told the Townsville Bulletin at the time of the novel’s 2018 publication.

Eventually, Trent shared a first draft with his mother. She is the basis for the book and show’s matriarchal figure Frances ‘Frankie’ Bell, played by Phoebe Tonkin.

still from tv show
Travis Fimmel plays Eli’s stepfather in the adaptation

Trent and his mum both agree that Boy Swallows Universe is a 50-50 mix of fact and fantasy.

“I don’t have enough words in the book to go on about all the things my mum survived, things that other people would have succumbed to,” Trent told the Townsville Bulletin.

“I told her, ‘Look, if you don’t like any of this, it goes straight in the bin, that’s it, don’t say another word.”

film set
Trent (centre)co-produced the series, which audiences can’t stop bingeing

However, upon reading it, she agreed it could be published, an act Trent calls “the greatest gift”.

“I wanted to do it in the right way, so I tried to change something pretty dark and terrible into something beautiful,” says the two-time Walkley Award-winning journalist. “It is a way I have honestly tried to approach life: Just take it in. Don’t just write about one thing, take it all in. Take every last aspect, take all the dark, take all the light, take the whole universe in. That’s what the kid in the book is doing, just going for it.

“That can be dangerous, but I love when anyone does that, just owns it. That’s what helps us survive.”

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