Truffaut remained true to Dr. Itard's written accounts in most respects. A few variations are: (1) Victor was not stark naked when first captured; he had the shreds of a shirt around his neck. (2) Victor's hair would have been much longer, because he was indifferent to hygiene or how he looked. (3) Jean Itard was merely a young medical student, while the film suggests that he was on an equal basis with Pinel. (4) Madame Guerin became almost a mother to Victor, always attending to him, whereas the film suggests that she merely helped to train him and to clean up after him. (5) Itard would rub Victor's back to relax and comfort him, but then had to worry about sexual responses. Victor also often wet his bed, but Itard never punished him; he decided to allow Victor to learn whether he preferred to lie in a wet bed or to get up to relieve himself. These problems are not shown. (6) In the scene in which Victor throws a tantrum about learning the alphabet, his and Dr. Itard's responses were different than are shown in the film. Real-life Victor bit his bedsheets and began to throw hot coals around the house before falling to the ground and writhing/screaming/kicking; and Itard (Truffaut) did not merely put him into the closet for a few moments. Itard admits [in translation] that he actually "violently threw open the window of his room, which was on the fifth floor overlooking some boulders directly below ... and grabbing him forcibly by the hips, I held him out of the window, his head facing directly down toward the bottom of the chasm. After some seconds, I drew him in again. He was pale, covered with a cold sweat ... I made him gather up all the [alphabet] cards and replace them all. This was done very slowly ... but at least without impatience." Viewers may thank Truffaut for choosing the lesser of two evil punishments! (7) Finally, Dr. Itard took care of Victor for 5 years; in 1806, Victor moved into Madame Guerin's house and stayed there for the rest of his life, with the French Government paying for his care. It is believed that he died there, without ever marrying.
The film isn't based on a novel; it was a technical report or, more precisely, medical notes, entitled "Rapport fait à son excellence le Ministre de l'intérieur sur les nouveaux développemens et état actuel du sauvage de l'Aveyron." [More or less: Report to the Minister of the Interior about new developments and current state of the wild child of Aveyron.]
The incidents based on true life, as reported by Dr. Itard and as shown by Truffaut, include the facts that: (1) Victor was captured by hunters. (2) Pinel did conclude and dismiss Victor as a helpless retarded child, "an incurable idiot." (3) Crowds of Parisians really did come to see the "Wild Boy of Aveyron." (4) Victor really did prefer the "O" sound, and accepted the name Victor, which in French has an accent on the "O" [veek-TOR]. (5) Dr. Itard appears to have been truly kind to the boy, as were Mme. Guerin and the neighbors. (6) Victor appears to have had great affection for Itard and Guerin, but was never interested in children of his own age.
The real Dr. Jean Itard was Chief Physician at the National Institution for Deaf-Mutes, Paris. His work with Victor led to his being honored by the French Academy of Science. But Itard is better known as one of the forefathers of the Montessori method of teaching, and he is remembered for his work with deaf-mute children.
The Los Angeles opening of this film occurred one week before the discovery of an American "wild child", a young girl who had been kept isolated from human contact much of her life. The team of doctors working with her, arranged a private viewing of the French film for inspiration.