\special command is basically telling the backend, i.e., the output device, how to behave. Therefore the content of a
\special command is device dependent and there is now way to make an output device A understand the syntax of device B unless A is accepting what B wants in the first place as well.
pdftex and thus
pdflatex use both a "TeX"-engine as well as an output device that generates printer output (PDF data in this case) and it has certain conventions for
\special but not others. So if your old document has been written for some specific DVI printer device or for example for a PostScript device then no, you can't make those documents work without replacing the content of the
For precisely this reason LaTeX2e introduced abstraction layers that hide graphic and color
\special syntax, by providing higher level packages (
color) that offer a standard syntax and internally translate these commands into the
\special commands the output device needs to load a picture or to select a color or to rotate an image.