With one exception, the newly released Netflix adaptation of Trent Dalton’s beloved Australian novel is trouncing everything else on the streaming giant at the moment — and deservedly so. Boy Swallows Universe is the name of the seven-episode limited series that’s currently #2 in the US, behind only Fool Me Once, and it offers viewers an epic coming-of-age story set in 1980s Brisbane that blends the innocence of youth with the cold reality of adulthood.
Protagonist Eli Bell, while maintaining his positive spirit, has to grapple with everything from a lost father and poetic clairvoyant of a brother to a recovering addict for a mom, a heroin dealer for a stepfather, and a notorious criminal for a babysitter. “As he faces the harsh realities of life — and the looming dangers that threaten his family — Eli tries to follow his heart and understand what it means to be a good person,” the streamer explains about Boy Swallows Universe, which was directed by Bharat Nalluri (who previously worked on Apple TV+’s Shantaram).
The series unfolds in 1985 in a dusty suburb in Brisbane. That’s where Eli, as a middle-schooler, lives with his older brother Gus in a working-class neighborhood with their mom, Frankie, and their stepdad, Lyle. Eli’s just trying to get by and grow up, helped along the way by a warmhearted mentor who’s also a convicted felon, but the school bullies and his drug-dealing stepfather make life harder than it needs to be.
As Eli investigates his stepdad’s secret life, partly out of fear that his addict mother has begun using again, he gets mixed up in his town’s criminal underbelly. But all that said, there is a universality to this story, about a young boy trudging along through his wonder years on the road to adulthood.
The magic of this series also comes from the fact that Dalton’s evocative story is so personal and semi-autobiographical. When it was published in 2018, the book broke Nielsen BookScan records for Australia’s fastest-selling debut novel ever. Just one year later, for the first time in history, it won four major prizes at the prestigious Australian Book Industry Awards, including Book of the Year, and worldwide sales have now exceeded 850,000.
“Australian fiction and screenwriting have long been obsessed … with the lives of scumbags and criminals,” screenwriter John Collee wrote in a review for the Sydney Morning Herald. “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.”