Using Video for Knowledge Translation: What "The Worst Remake" of a Classic American Novel Teaches Us About Translating from One Medium to Another


In 1995, I spent most of my days buried in fiction and scholarship that took me back to the middle of the 1800s. When I wasn’t poring over microfilm of nineteenth-century women’s magazines, I was reading literary criticism about women’s writing during the era of such celebrated male authors as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville.

As I pursued these two research tracks, I read with one foot in highbrow culture—the world of Hawthorne and Melville—and the other in the lowbrow culture of “domestic” writing by women. The tension between these two domains fascinated me; indeed, it was what got me up in the morning and sent me eagerly rooting through another box of microfilm.

You can imagine, then, with what nerdy anticipation I awaited a new movie version of Hawthorne’s classic romance, The Scarlet Letter, starring Demi Moore and Gary Oldman. For me, this movie would be Movie of the Year. When my supervisor and I met to discuss my research, we counted down the weeks till the release date.

When the movie finally came out, it certainly made a splash, but not the positive kind. To say the film bombed would be an understatement.

Roger Ebert gave the film 1.5 stars, but many others were not so kind. The Golden Raspberry Awards (the Razzies), a parody of the Academy Awards, named The Scarlet Letter the “Worst Remake or Sequel” of the year.

Critics objected to the ways that the film played fast and loose with the original story. As you recall, the 1850 novel explores dark themes of moral corruption and religious hypocrisy. The heroine, Hester Prynne, bears a child out of wedlock and refuses to name the father, a Puritan minister. As punishment for her crime of passion, Hester is shunned by polite society and required to wear on her breast a red A, the mark of an adulterer. Meanwhile, the minister, who never confesses his adultery, is slowly eaten away by guilt and dies with a similar A marked mysteriously on the skin of his chest.

A glimmer of hope shines through this dark tale as Hester, an accomplished seamstress, creates an independent life for herself and her daughter at the edge of town. Through her resilience and creativity, she emerges as a triumphant artist figure who rises above oppressive social norms.

The movie takes this hint of a proto-feminist theme and runs wild with it, abolishing the notion of sexual sin altogether. Hester and her lover defy Puritan notions of guilt and achieve a happy Hollywood ending, riding off into the wilderness to start a new life with their daughter. As if this didn’t drive home the moral revisionism obviously enough, the film also includes a troop of marginalized women, prostitutes among them, who openly mock the Puritan patriarchy in comic, and most unHawthornesque, ways.

Such deviations of plot and character have strained the patience of most critics largely because they recast Hawthorne’s original tale, which he insisted on calling a “Romance,” in a realistic light. As someone soaked in Hawthorne’s work, was I shocked and disappointed by such artistic liberties? Not in the least.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie has many flaws, and it’s not the best example of cinematic art I’ve every seen. But it wasn’t trying to rival an arthouse film like Bleu, part of the French trilogy Trois Couleurs, which had come out just a couple years earlier.

I enjoyed and appreciated The Scarlet Letter for what it was meant to be—a popular Hollywood film. Unpretentious, plot-oriented entertainment driven by mediocre acting, with some feel-good messaging thrown in. A bit of a romp, really.

Would Hawthorne have approved of this treatment? Of course not. He was no doubt harrumphing and tut-tutting from his grave. But the movie wasn’t for him, for his time, or even for his late-twenty-first-century fan club.

The movie targeted the audience Hawthorne despised for failing to appreciate his artistic, highbrow work. It was meant for the same crowd that flocked to the women’s magazines that Hawthorne would have called “trashy,” if that slang had been in the vocabulary of a genteel civil servant back in the day.

In my opinion, the 1995 remake of The Scarlet Letter flopped because reviewers failed to interpret it as a standalone work. They were so wedded to the original, one of the classics of American literature, that they couldn’t escape its shadow.

To my mind, that clinging to the original proved more disappointing than the film itself.  By sanctifying the novel’s form and themes, the reviewers failed to give the story room to breathe and find a new form for a new era.

In the same way, knowledge translation projects can flop when concerns about staying true to the “original” mode of publication, language, or style of data visualization limit creativity. Through earning the title “Worst Remake,” The Scarlet Letter teaches us to respect both the challenges and the opportunities of making sophisticated content suitable for popular consumption.

On the challenges side, the film’s reception points out how entrenched our notions are of highbrow and lowbrow expression. Creative knowledge translation contradicts culturally-embedded attitudes toward the production and preservation of knowledge. It acts as a democratizing force, calling into question the control and authority of the knowledge-elite. That’s why taking a stand for knowledge translation at first feels a bit uncomfortable to those of us reared in the rarefied air of academia.

But on the opportunities side, The Scarlet Letter shows how a familiar story can take on fresh meaning when translated from one medium (text) to another (film). The movie’s unorthodox approach to Hawthorne’s narrative also points out the strengths and weaknesses of film as means of artistic expression.

Now that video is all the rage, and a key element of most knowledge translation plans, it pays to notice the pros and cons of working with this medium. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of helping to create different kinds of educational and KT videos, including doodles, animations, and interviews with experts. Here are a few observations to help you think through your next video project.

#1. Video makes concepts visual and concrete. This is both a strength and a weakness, as the critical response to The Scarlet Letter showed.

Hawthorne’s novel takes place in the historical setting of Puritan New England, but the real action unfolds within the hearts of the characters and within a framework of metaphorical meaning. In fact, in his preface to the book, Hawthorne meditates on the anti-realistic nature of the story and his commitment to exploring the interiority of Romance.

In contrast, the 1995 movie exploits the realism of video. The producers went to great effort to turn Shelburne, Nova Scotia into a historical village. They also conflated some historical figures with the fictional characters. (Gary Oldman’s character, for instance, clearly refers to John Eliot, the Puritan minister who was the first to translate the Bible into an Indigenous language.) In the film, we see characters cooking, chopping wood, sewing, making love, and pushing a wagon out of a mudhole. Whereas Hawthorne is obsessed with the internal world of emotion and conscience, video as a medium lends itself to examining the external.

This emphasis on the concrete is a strength for knowledge translators because it forces us to make the abstract tangible. Video enables us to immerse the audience in a realistic world in which they can see, hear, taste, smell, and touch what we’re talking about.

At the same time, when the subject you’re addressing tends to the abstract, it can be challenging to work within the limits of video’s realism. You may need to lean heavily on concrete examples to bring your content to life.

#2. Video is action-oriented. Many critics panned The Scarlet Letter because, like any popular film, it included fast-paced action, including shoot-em-up scenes pitting the Puritans against an Indigenous nation.  Such is the nature of Hollywood film, and it’s best to remember that when creating a KT video.

When you’re working in video—whether you’re creating an animated video or filming a live-action interview or documentary—focus on action. For instance, if you’re producing an animated video, make sure that the visuals on the screen change at least once every 20 seconds. Otherwise, you’ll quickly lose your viewers, who associate video with nonstop video stimulation.

#3. Video packs an emotional punch. Hawthorne denounced the women writers I studied, calling them a “damned mob of scribbling women,” because they wrote sentimental fiction that outsold his more cerebral work. If he were alive today, I’m sure Hawthorne would have held Hollywood in equal contempt.

But video, like the popular fiction of Hawthorne’s day, leverages the power of affect. Even a mediocre film like The Scarlet Letter can make us laugh or cry or gasp in fear or tremble with indignation. The realistic experience it creates isn’t just concrete—it’s emotional too. We identify with the characters on the screen as if they are our brother, our sister, our mother, ourselves. We feel their pain and enter their joy, through the magic of the cinematography (especially those powerful close-ups), script, and soundtrack. When you take your knowledge translation work to video, you too can exploit the multidimensionality of video and the emotional impact it makes possible. Rather than simply describing your topic, you can dramatize it in ways that engage and inspire your target audience.

#4. Video requires multi-modal engagement. With all its plusses, video also has its downsides. One of them is the need for an audience to engage with it through both audio and video. This can be problematic for people with sensory limitations. It’s also a challenge for an audience that’s trying to engage with your content in a public space where they can’t play the audio, or an audience that’s in a hurry.

When you use video for KT, it’s wise to include captions and/or a transcript so that you’re accommodating all the members of your audience.

#5. Video takes a team. While video editing is becoming easier and easier to do, thanks to AI-enabled editing tools, producing a video still requires a complex set of technical skills. Unless you’re aiming for a “rough-cut” (homemade) effect, you’ll likely need to engage a team of professionals to create a polished end product.

At the very least, you’ll need a videographer, a video editor, and someone to play creative director. In many instances, the videographer and video editor could be the same person, but ask to view a portfolio before you decide whether you need a specialized editor. If you’re clear about the video story you want to tell, can see the finished video in your mind, and can articulate your vision, then you could act as creative director. Otherwise, a freelance script writer can serve as a bridge between you and the technical team and help manage the project.

Every era tells stories in its own way. Before the printing press, we told stories aloud. In Hawthorne’s day, his female rivals were telling stories through a popular press that he both denigrated and envied. Today, we share stories through videos in various forms, from feature films to 60-second clips for social media.

As a knowledge translator, you may feel a bit like Hawthorne when you think about the way that video compresses and externalizes information and ups the emotional ante. You may be skeptical about joining the “damned mob” of YouTube and TikTok creators. Or you may feel excited by the possibilities, the fresh opportunities to make a popular medium the vehicle for important ideas.

Either way, video, like Hollywood, is here to stay, and it’s not going to give up its premium position as a channel for KT anytime soon. As knowledge translators, it’s up to us to learn how to collaborate with creative professionals so we can use video intelligently, respecting both the integrity of the research and the interests of our audience.


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