In the late 1930s, the novelist and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo read an article about the Prince of Wales paying a visit to a hospital in Canada for veterans of the first World War and meeting a soldier who had lost all of his limbs and senses from an explosion. From that inspiration Trumbo wrote his most famous novel, Johnny Got His Gun, about a soldier who wakes up in a hospital to find his arms and legs amputated and that he is blind, deaf and mute. It was published in 1939 to great success and in 1971 was adapted into a film that has since become a classic. But the adaptations didn’t stop there: it was also turned into a play in 1981, and the version you are probably most familiar with was the inspiration for Metallica’s 1989 song “One,” with scenes from the 1971 movie appearing in the music video.
These adaptations are examples of process of remediation at work. Each of the artists behind these adaptations had to make decisions about how to take the idea behind the source material to create his or her own vision for the work. By telling the same story through each of their respective art forms, these artists were able to present a new interpretation of the original story, each of which gives us a new lens through which to understand the soldier’s experience.
Remediation is the process of taking a text, whether it is a newspaper article, a story, a film or even something like a business proposal or a report, and translating it into a new medium. Remediation is based on the idea of the famous media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who once said that “the medium is the message.” McLuhan meant that how we perceive information changes based the way in which that information is presented.
Let’s think about this in terms that you might be more familiar with: many of you have probably had to write a paper for which you had to give an oral report that included a PowerPoint presentation and possibly a handout. Each of those elements, the report, the PowerPoint and the presentation, is a remediation of your original paper. You would not present information in the same way in a PowerPoint as you would on a handout or when you delivered the content verbally. Because of the changes you make from one medium to the next, your audience perceives the information differently based on how it is delivered.
Audience is one of the most important elements of the remediation process, because the creator of the medium must take into consideration how her work will be understood and interpreted. Let’s go back to the example of Johnny Got His Gun. When it was published in 1939, Trumbo knew that Americans were hoping to avoid having to enter World War II and that people would respond well to a book portraying the horrors of war at its worst (incidentally, that sentiment backfired on him after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, after which his book went through a period of great unpopularity). The film adaptation was not made until 1971, when anti-war sentiments towards Vietnam were at their height and younger filmgoers were once again open to the message Trumbo (who also directed the film) had originally tried to convey. By the time the late 1980’s rolled around and Metallica recorded its version, much of the controversy around the book and the film had died down and so the group was able to write a song that spoke to the horror of being imprisoned inside your own body without the baggage of pro or anti-war sentiments.
Regardless of what kind of remediation you are taking on, whether it’s artistic, academic or business-related, it is vital to understand how the remediation process works. By knowing how to interpret the most important ideas from the original text and by transferring them in such a way as to give new meaning to the interpretation without misrepresenting the original, you will be far more successful in conveying important ideas to your audience and in understanding how important the way you present your information is.