Boy Swallows Universe is adapted for the screen by John Colle and is based on the novel written by Trent Dalton. The writers have said that it is a semi-autobiographical drama as they have included many abstract elements in the narrative and left it up to the viewers to decipher the meaning of it. It could be that the writers wanted to symbolize certain aspects of the lives of the characters, or maybe they just wanted to add mysticism to the narrative to make it interesting and entertaining. There was a red rotary phone that we saw in the series, from which Eli and Gus tried to talk to someone, but we are never shown who it was or what it meant in reality, and it is left to the viewers to make their own assumptions. We saw that whenever the boys were in crisis, they picked up the receiver, and it felt like they had hope that the voice from the other side would be able to free them of their doubts and dilemmas. So, let’s try to understand what that red phone symbolized—if there was someone actually talking from the other end or if it was just a cry for help from the boys, as they were not able to understand the kind of situations they were stuck in.
Who Was On The Other Side Of The Red Phone?
Eli and Gus went inside a tunnel beneath their house, basically to check if their stepfather was once again peddling drugs or not. They were scared that if he was dealing, then their mother would also get involved once again. Frankie had left drugs after a lot of struggle, and Eli and Gus didn’t want her to become dependent on them once again. Surprisingly, they saw a red landline phone kept there, and they didn’t understand what it was at first. They picked up the receiver and heard a voice coming from the other end. The entire sequence was very abstract, and it was quite evident that the writers wanted to blur the lines between reality and imagination. It felt like the red phone appeared out of nowhere in the tunnel. Eli and Gus both talked a few times about it, and they never got a definitive answer, but it felt like whoever was on the other side wanted to guide them and tell them about the mistakes they were going to make. I personally didn’t feel like the voice on the other side wanted to misguide them or was laying a trap for them. Though it didn’t give any objective solutions, the voice provided them with some perspective so that they had an idea about where they were headed. Now, considering the writers have left the entire thing open-ended, we are free to make any speculation. One point of view could be that it was Gus from the future talking to his younger self. Gus had stopped talking when he was a child, and the reason could be what Slim Haliday said about wanting to protect himself from the effects of his visions, which would have brought the world to his doorstep.
Secondly, maybe Gus’ trauma ran deeper than anyone realized. He nearly lost his life when his father drove into the lake, and Gus not talking could be due to the shock and trauma of that. Additionally, all the visions of Gus that we saw in the series were related to violence. Perhaps Gus kept having multiple such visions instead of the few that the audience was shown. It could be their effect that rendered Gus so silent in his real life, because he was not left with the emotional energy for words and engagement with people. I personally think that Gus knew more than what he said. Actually, even Eli believed that a lot of times, whatever Gus said about the future came true, even if it was insignificant information. The main point was that it was true, and that was all that mattered. Now, it is possible that, with time, Gus realized that staying silent never helped anybody’s cause. Maybe he realized that he should have acted in a different manner as compared to what he did. But by the time that realization seeped in, that boat had already sailed. This is speculation about Gus in the future, and I am guessing that the writers took the creative liberty to venture into science fiction and make Gus the man on the phone who guided his younger brother and himself to avoid making his mistakes. Maybe whatever vision Gus was seeing was not because he was gifted or he had magical powers, but because his future self was constantly trying to contact him through various channels. It is almost every other individual’s dream to go back in time and amend the things they have done, and in Boy Swallows Universe, Trent Dalton probably took the liberty to do that and bring his wishful thinking to life through his characters.
What did the red phone symbolize?
Eli literally tackled each and every situation in, Boy Swallows Universe with a lot of grit, determination, and courage, and it was just surreal to witness him survive all that he did and still make something good out of his life. But it cannot be denied that he was very young at that time, and nobody, especially that young, deserved to go through anything like that. It was amazing that the boy, after enduring so much, was sane of mind. There were times when he broke down, and he had nobody to give him the help that he needed. Yes, he had his brother, who was there for him in his own way and as much as he could, but Eli still felt the need to have a parent around him.
The red phone can be seen as a means for the boys to understand what was happening to them. Many times, when you’re so young and you are going through something bizarre, you do not understand what is happening to you, how to deal with the situation, or whether to take a stand against it or just give in. The phone was a way through which the real Trent Dalton wanted to help his characters in a manner in which he wasn’t helped. Maybe Trent, at a later stage in his life, realized that if some divine guidance had been there, he wouldn’t have felt so miserable. Maybe, the red phone was Dalton’s wishful thinking, and he conjoined it with reality to find guidance, or, one can say, divine intervention, that he had never found in real life. At the end of the series, Eli was seen writing his story as a book to be published. Eli Bell was Trent’s counterpart in the novel, so maybe the person making the phone calls was Eli, who was altering certain parts of the past with his intervention to fit the narrative of the book that he was writing or the life he wished he had lived.