House of Cards

No, not that:house-of-cards-kevin-spaceyAlthough I’m very happy that I could binge-watch it now, in Poland, on the day of release, on Netflix, like a normal human being, not one episode a week on… what was it called, television?

Not even that:


Although I believe it’s a superior product. Kevin Spacey is excellent, but Ian Richardson is great. Shakespearean villain, veteran of political system even more ruthless than the one we know from the American version, Francis Urquhart would outmanoeuvre Frank Underwood before breakfast. And then Underwood would remind him that UK is a pygmy next to the world’s biggest superpower. Realpolitik is a tough business.

Actually I’d love to see a series where Urquhart/Underwood had to cooperate, sort of evil version of Roosevelt/Churchill duo. Magnificent bastards both of them…


Ladies and gentlemen, today I give you this:


Michel Dobbs, House of Cards (1989)


the book that wasn’t better

It’s not a bad novel, really. Genre literature, its genre being political thriller. So, not s/f nor fantasy, but influential enough work of fiction to be worth experiencing even if there are no space ships and no elves. There is a king, though, we’re talking United Kingdom here, a country with traditions, not an upstart born measly two centuries ago.

And look, “the book was better” is my motto. I’d buy a t-shirt, but I can’t afford it. I spend all my disposable income on books 😉

Back to House of Cards.

Francis Urquhart, Chief Whip (self-explanatory title of the main disciplinarian in a political party… cute and honest) for the Conservatives, is disappointed when the new party leader refuses to award his service with a government position. Supported by his devoted wife (devoted as much, if not more, to his career as him as a life partner), he undertakes a quest of revenge and conquest, aiming at the highest prize – Prime Ministerhip.

Schemes, blackmail, dangerous game of seduction and manipulation with ambitious and naive young journalist… House of Cards viewers know the drill.

Politics stripped of any illusions. Naked, ruthless fight for power. No sentiments, no pretending. Voters, public opinion – doesn’t matter, they’re sheep following the ablest liar. Until some other piper leads them in opposite direction. Morality…

Morality, Sir, is the monologue of the unexcited and the unexcitable, the revenge of the unsuccessful, the punishment of those who tried and failed, or who never had the courage to try at all. [that’s actually from book 2, To Play the King]

It’s hardly a new concept, but Dobbs writes it very well. The plot flows easily up to its unsatisfying conclusion. Big mistake – he does not go far enough. After an excellent lesson in political cynicism he decides to give his readers a rather traditional, moralistic ending.

The biggest mistake is nor really a mistake, just a lack of vision. Urquhart’s/Underwood’s wife was created by Andrew Davies, writer of the TV series and IMO the true father of House of Cards’ greatness. Dobbs picked it up and made her play an important role in books 2 and 3, but in the first one she was a minor character. In the BBC series she is a traditional politician’s wife, but a very strong character in her own right. Their relationship is crucial to his success, even if she doesn’t have her own NGO to lead. She would never try to get an official position for herself, like Claire Underwood does. But, ultimately, she is the stronger partner and… I don’t want to spoil the TV series, but, for me, the ending of the final episode was a very, very big wow! moment.

I guess, Claire is the heroine for our times, much more active and visible, refusing to hide in her husband’s shadow. But Elizabeth shows us that strong female characters of the past did not need to personally kick ass to be strong.

The greatest addition of Davies is a direct contact we have with the main protagonist. In book he never breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the reader.

Ultimately, a very good genre novel was translated into a great TV series. And genre novel is a term I use here in its slightly pejorative meaning I usually protest against. But Dobbs was not able to go beyond the rules of his genre. Davies was, and creators of the Netlifx version also were.

I might re-read the books one day, in their latest incarnation, they were partially re-written to better render the greatness of the series. Unprecedented move that shows, I believe, that even the author sees how the adaptation outgrew the inspiration.

Score: novel 7,5/10, BBC series 10/10, Netflix version 9/10

There is one more difference between the British and American visions of the true mechanisms hidden beneath the theatre of democratic politics. [Spoiler alert, hightlight to read. It’s long, but I don’t recommend reading it before watching the entire BBC series] In the former, the true power is not our protagonist. The system, acting often through ultimately uncontrollable secret services, takes care of its own continuity. Strong politicians are needed to create an illusion of control and understanding for the masses, but they are easily replaceable. The system of government outlasts any of them, and its agents are willing to do what it takes to ensure its stability. It’s oddly comforting for a cynic like me. In the US version, there is nothing but a game of private individuals for power and resources. Nobody is keeping it together or looking past next elections. And that’s a true horror for me. Better conspiracy than chaos?

One thing I’m worried about is how long the Americans make their version. Season 5 is already confirmed… British TV shows are usually relatively short, intense, leaving you cry for more after a limited number of episodes. American TV is able to kill the best idea with endless repetitions, as long as some viewers stay loyal to the series.

One undeniable advantage the American version has is that it’s way more up to date. BBC gives us a vision of the politics of pre-Internet era, Netflix series deals with modern world after Twitter killed respectable journalism. I don’t believe it is truly dangerous to Urquhart’s superiority over Underwood, the big truths of human nature and politics are constant and Ian Richardson created Richard III of more than just the 90-ties.

So – watch Netflix, see the BBC series, then maybe read the book, if you’re a really big fan.

9 thoughts on “House of Cards

  1. Huh, are we talking political fiction or reality here? 😉
    Honestly, I didn’t watch the full first season of either series and am not going to… Neither will I read the books. I am far less enthusiastic about House of Cards than Piotrek, mostly because it really irritates me when the authors try to sell us the ruthless, unethical protagonists as nice guys who just had the bad luck of having troubled childhood or adolescence or overly ambitious wives.
    I know the actors do their best, I know that Fincher and Spacey and Richardson and BBC and [insert your favorite thing about HoC here] but the screenplays and characters keep getting more far-fetched and unbelievable with every season and that’s the one thing I really can’t stand :).


    1. piotrek

      Not being able to appreciate House of Cards is a serious character flaw.
      Although I’m worried that American version might indeed get too far-fetched, if it drags too long.


  2. piotrek

    Reblogged this on Re-enchantment Of The World and commented:

    I had a discussion recently about the “book was better” trope. It usually is, I believe. But, as a contrarian, I like to find exceptions to every rule, even one I believe in.
    Long before Netflix ordered the American version of “House of Cards”, I believed HoC to be such an example, contradicting this particular rule. British HoC is listed among my favourite shows of all time, while I just couldn’t bring myself to love the novels, even if the first one predates its tv adaptation.
    So – I decided to re-post my thoughts on the topic. I still haven’t seen the last season of the Netflix show, and I don’t think I ever will. Regardless of the crimes of Kevin Spacey, it was too long and nowhere near as god as the original version. I want to remember how good it began and not spoil my impressions by seeing its progressing deterioration. I’d rather re-watch Sir Ian Richardson’s Shakespearean prime minister.
    In a time of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Urquhart is perhaps an unattainable dream 😉


  3. I’ve not watched the Underwood version (nor will, now) but Richardson’s FU is truly Machivellian (along with his Lady Macbeth). In fact I’d go further: he has the ruthlessness of Boris Johnson’s eminence grise Dominic Cummings but has a better understanding of human nature than Johnson’s spad.

    Liked by 1 person

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