In Color; The Wild Child
Marcia Aldrich

Twenty minutes after we had left the theater I refused to believe that The Wild Child by Francois Truffaut was shot in black and white. The film, based on a true story and set in the France of 1798, is about a young boy who had spent his life without human contact and could not walk, speak, read or write, and a doctor’s attempts to civilize him. I had been held rapt from the frantic opening when a small group of hunters and their dogs chase the boy through the woods. The film I had seen was in color and nothing could shake me from my conviction even though it was inaccurate as my companion heatedly argued.

The film’s images, cast in the haze of memory for I have not viewed it since that first time, are in color. That is how I experienced the film and that is how the experience lodged in my memory. I see the men chasing the naked boy with his skin covered in red dirt and his hair disheveled running on all fours through a very green forest, robustly, lushly green. He scampers up a tree, branch by branch until he rests in a crux near the top. He rocks in his resting place. There the leaves of the tree frame his face and are green and plentiful—that’s how I remember them. Green.

That I saw the film in color tells me more about who I was as a young girl than any factual account could. And it also tells me that watching a film is an act of creation and what we remember or take away continues that creation.

My “mistake” upset the man I was with. What upset him more was that given the correct information, I persisted in remembering the film creatively. There is no doubt that my experience is factually inaccurate. My emotional reaction literally colored the film. Adding color when there was none is some kind of authoring, but it doesn’t bother me now and it didn’t bother me then. I am as interested in what we get wrong in our accounts as in what we get right.

I was a young woman, shy of twenty, who was encountering art films I never even knew existed for the first time and their impact upon me was sometimes shattering and a revelation. Nothing prepared me for their intimacy or the intensity of my response. The empathetic exploration of the emotional life of the child in Truffaut’s The Wild Child spoke to me. The boy was bereft, misunderstood, and isolated. He also embodied great spirit and depth of feeling. The image of the boy rocking in the rain is an image I don’t need to see again because I carry it with me in my mind’s eye. He rocked when he felt great emotion—was it longing, was it feeling at one with the moon, with nature—I don’t know because he didn’t name it. Whatever he felt, it was wordless. I had no resistance, no protection to keep this film at bay. I bestowed The Wild Child with color it didn’t have and I never was aware of the alteration. It just happened.

I remember the film so vividly because in watching I felt a kinship with the boy and understood something essential about myself—I understood how the child had to relinquish the wildness in himself in order to take his place in the social order, to be part of a community structure, to be accepted into a family. If he persisted in his nonverbal, gesturing animal ways, he would not be granted affection or companionship. He would be sent away and institutionalized. Yet, something fundamental at the heart of who The Wild Child was, who I was, nurtured by nature and not social interaction or family, something beyond language or before language, was being assaulted in order for him to survive. I felt those pressures myself—I felt that who I was in solitude, outside the family home, with animals and in dirt was my primary home, my primary identity and that it was wordless. The enormous challenge of the artist is how to acquire and use language without losing that wordless world at the center of identity, at the center of art.

The Wild Child ends without entirely resolving whether the boy will thrive because by now we no longer know exactly what thriving would be. Would it be the muting of the wild and the acquisition of language and manners? Or would it be a return to the wild? Either resolution comes with loss. The ending points to a future that includes his growing socialization. I felt a terrible sadness that I doubted others felt, a sadness because I could viscerally feel the wildness at the heart of him being ripped out and replaced with something more acceptable and ordinary. I knew most viewers would feel his survival was a triumph. If he hadn’t been broken and able to learn, his fate was dismal. He would languish in an institution. Still I felt the violence at the core of his learning, how he had to be forced to let go of the soundless joy inside him, and it pained me. We were at the end survivors in a captive world.

Thinking about this film reminds me of how much trouble I had thriving when I was young. Like the wild child, I learned how to stand in the doorway, half in, half out, aware of what I was losing.

Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton and part of the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers Series. She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Companion to An Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is at work on Haze, a narrative of marriage and divorce during her college years. Her website: