Dalton Swallows Universe: Beloved Aussie story now global Netflix smash


Boy Swallows Universe is the 5th most-watched Netflix show in the world this week. Set in 80s Queensland, the Trent Dalton penned series has amassed 3.6 million views so far. Forbes Australia talks to Netflix APAC head of public affairs about the homegrown Aussie story, and how the streamer’s $1 billion investment in Australian content is paying off.
Travis Fimmel, Felix Cameron, Lee Tiger Halley, Simon Baker, Phoebe Tonkin, Bryan Brown and Trent Dalton attend the Netflix global premiere of “Boy Swallows Universe” in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images for Netflix)

From the housing commission flats of Brisbane to the list of most-watched shows across the globe. Eli Bell, Lyle Orlik, and mastermind author Trent Dalton are off to a cracking start to 2024.

The semi-autobiographical series ‘Boy Swallows Universe’ has been on Netflix for just a week, and is already Australia’s second most-watched series. It also cracked the Top 10 in the U.S. and 46 other countries.

The 2018 book of the same name is told through the eyes of Eli Bell — an industrious 12-year-old who dabbles in a life of crime, is mentored by convicts, and has aspirations to become a reporter at the local newspaper. Bell is based partly on author Trent Dalton’s chaotic upbringing in government housing in Queensland. Dalton’s real-life mum and stepfather sold heroin and spent time in the clink. His babysitter was a convicted murderer and prison escapee.

At 21, Dalton was hired by the Brisbane News and went on to become an award-winning Australian journalist. He wrote Boy Swallows Universe in the evenings after putting his kids to bed. The debut novel was Australian Book of the Year in 2019 and has been published in 34 territories across the world, selling more than a million copies.

Publisher HarperCollins sold the Boy Swallows Universe television rights to U.S.-based production company Anonymous Content four years ago. Early last year, Netflix announced it would run the series over 8-episodes.

Trent Dalton, the mastermind behind the Boy Swallows Universe book and Netflix series. Source: TrentDaltonAuthor Instagram

Amy Kunrojpanya heads up public affairs for Netflix across APAC. Born in rural Queensland, the Australian media executive now lives in Singapore and has kept a keen eye on the development of Dalton’s book into a series.

“There’s a whole generation of people who grew up and who know this story,” says Kunrojpanya. “They know the twists and turns and how it ends. Fans have very strong opinions about how you represent the characters that they love.”

Added to the pressure on the content creators, are the high expectations of the Australian audience.

“Australians are very vocal” says Kunrojpanya with a smile. “They keep us honest, which is great. They have a very high bar. And rightly so — they are often paying a premium for the services that they experience. It puts the burden on us to make sure that we do justice to what they know. But then to also give them something that they don’t expect at the same time.”

The key to retaining the authenticity found in a book like Boy Swallows Universe, Kunrojpanya says, is working closely with the person who wrote the story.

“One of the things that is so special about this project, is the role the author played in the creative process,” says Kunrojpanya. “Having someone like Trent Dalton so engaged means that authenticity is at the core. And that isn’t necessarily always the case when we’re working with a title that’s coming from IP.”

At the heart of that intellectual property is a story that Dalton says he buried for 20 years.

Amy Kunrojpanya leads public affairs for Netflix across APAC

“I wrote about all the very real things I saw as a kid growing up in the outer suburbs of Brisbane in the 1980s: drug addiction, drug dealing, ex-cons and ex-killers, imprisonment, poverty, violence and love. So much love. And so much hope,” says Dalton.

Writing the book was a cathartic and life-changing experience.

“Boy Swallows Universe — the whole double meaning of that is that you swallow the good stuff and you swallow the bad stuff, and then you spit it out afterwards. I’ve swallowed that story for 20 years,” says Dalton. “The moment I spat that fear out in the form of a 400-page book, the universe came back to me and said, ‘This is why you’re here.”

Dalton says it was actor/producer Joel Edgerton’s enthusiasm and understanding of the story that convinced him to turn his opus into a television series. The two storytellers worked together to build the right team to bring it to life on the small screen. Bharat Nalluri, the director of Apple TV’s Shantaram — another revered Australian book adaptation — was chosen to direct the series.

“Trent Dalton is our North Star,” says Nalluri. “If we can capture 10% of his hope, his joy and his light, we have a fantastic TV show.” 

Nalluri and the production team shot Boy Swallows Universe entirely in Queensland, where the book is set. It is not known exactly how much Netflix spent on the series, but Kunrojpanya says the investment was significant.

“There’s a whole generation of people who grew up and who know this story. Fans have very strong opinions about how you represent the characters that they love.”

Amy Kunrojpanya, Netflix

Netflix was mindful about being respectful to the Australian roots of the story and also maximising its appeal.

“Boy Swallows Universe is classic, beloved Australian IP. Our content executives bring both the creative lens and also a commercial lens to the conversation,” says Kunrojpanya. “They are thinking about how to make sure the story resonates with the largest possible audience so that the series is not just liked, but beloved.”

Bringing local content to international audiences is a strategy that Netflix Australia has been refining over the last four years. It invested $1 billion in Australian films and shows between 2019 and 2023.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA – JANUARY 09: Felix Cameron and Trent Dalton pose for photographs during the Netflix global premiere of “Boy Swallows Universe” at New Farm Cinemas on January 09, 2024 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images for Netflix)

Unlike traditional broadcast TV, the company can leverage data from its streaming service to help inform which original productions will be greenlit. The direct relationship that Netflix has with its customers enables the company to receive immediate feedback regarding how long viewers watch programs, and what they like and dislike.

Boy Swallows Universe is not the only recent Australian success story for the company. Delta Goodrem’s Love Is In The Air, filmed in Airlie Beach, achieved second place in the global Top 10 during 2023. Surviving Summer, shot in coastal locations in Victoria, landed at number 7.

“Netflix was never just about promoting Hollywood to the world,” says Kunrojpanya. “It was about how can we find the very best stories that can come from anywhere — and then make them available to anyone, anywhere in the world. And that’s such a different model.”

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