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Why the Original House of Cards Is Infinitely Better Than Netflix’s Remake

The moral vision of the British version challenges much more deeply.

by
Benjamin Kerstein

Bio

February 28, 2013 - 11:00 am

Most striking is the change in tone. Netflix’s House of Cards is a drama, a thriller, even a tragedy, deeply earnest and strikingly dark, clearly reaching for some kind of mix between All the President’s Men and The Godfather. The BBC’s House of Cards, on the other hand, is a razor-taloned satire, the blackest black comedy since Dr. Strangelove. While Netflix’s version has its funny moments, the British version is black comedy at its unadulterated best; it’s utterly hilarious, but its funniest moments are also its most horrible, and the comedy builds relentlessly until the show suddenly turns on us, and slaps us in the face with a shocking climax that brings home in the most brutal fashion the weight of all the horror we’ve been laughing at (no, I won’t give it away, but suffice it to say that it outdoes the climax of its American remake by light years).

The difference is personified in the series’ central roles. Spacey’s Underwood is a Machiavellian shark, a player of the highest order who takes his job very, very seriously and is very, very good at it. He is a consummate operator in the finest tradition of the American backroom wheeler-dealer, willing to say anything to make a sale.

His British counterpart is Francis Urquhart (pronounced Urk-hurt, and yes, that his initials are F.U. is deliberate), played by Ian Richardson in what is unquestionably his greatest performance. Urquhart is not a shark – he is pure evil, a Mephistopheles for the modern age. Clearly based on Shakespeare’s Richard III, he has none of Spacey’s angst-ridden drive; instead, he revels in the evil he commits, and so do we, taking a corrupted pleasure in watching him knock down his rivals one by one as he clears the path to ultimate power. We feel for Spacey’s Underwood because he seems to have some semblance of humanity beneath the ruthless exterior, but we feel for Richardson’s Urquhart because – like Richard – he seems to be having so much fun. He’s evil because he enjoys it; and for awhile, so do we.

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All Comments   (13)
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I have only watched half of this show. I must say it is very good. Thanks for spotlighting it, I will finish it tomorrow night. Now for a heads up, Amazon offers it on instant streaming video, I think it is around two dollars an episode; however, it is free for those who have prime membership. I think it is well worth it in either case. Again thanks to Mr. Kerstein for this article, you are very right about this series. I especially like the shots of the rats scurrying about before a bit of skullduggery.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Infinitely better? Please. The review says it plainly. The Netflix version is akin to the Godfather where the BBC version is akin to Dr. Strangelove. I watched and enjoyed both tremendously. Is Dr. Stragelove infinitely better than The Godfather? Hardly. They are both excellent.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"House of Cards" and its sequels are excellent examples of the BBC making fine dramas without the need to pander to demographics or advertisers. I saw the original series when broadcast and, after marrying my American wife, bought the DVD's so she could enjoy it as well (she did).

I will not be watching the Netflix version. Twelve hours sounds monstrous and apart from that, I cannot imagine that they could do it as well or better than the original.

There are some things that simply do not improve with reheating.

Kevin Spacey might be a good actor, but Ian Richardson WAS F.U. Anybody else can only pale by comparison. Sorry Kevin.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
IIRC, the BBC HoC had this bit of ambiguity: Urquhart is ruthless and immoral, but also a very capable executive, who is right about some important policy questions while his well-meaning rivals and victims are wrong.

Another point: Urquhart's machinations are set in a parliamentary regime, and in a unitary state. There, the power of a national politician is entirely dependent on his offiicial position in the legislature. From backbench to whip/minister to prime minister is a clearly defined ladder. And each step is a matter of successful dealing among insiders in the capital, with the voters having a say only at the end.

It simply doesn't translate to the U.S. system of decentralized federal government, executive/legislative separation, direct election of executives, and primary elections.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Oh, infinitely better. By the end of four hours, Francis Urquhart had ruined several lives, brought down a prime minister and murdered two people. He then proceeded to take out a reigning monarch. It took forever for Kevin Spacey to knock off one measly player. Instead of murder and mayhem, we got a wholly superfluous side trip to attend the accidental death of a texting teenager and a tedious reunion with no connection to the main story line. I got so bored mid-way that I re-watched part one of the original.

Kevin Spacey is a very fine actor and the mini-series had the potential to be quite good. But it wasn't.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I am in total agreement; the British version is much superior. However most British actors and dramas leave the americans in the dust. It is somehow difficult for me to take american actors and media seriously; they are just not a serious group of people. They preen rather than act.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
What really made the original “House of Cards” so disturbing was F.U.’s habit to look straight at the audience and confide in them his next malevolent intention, thereby making the viewer his accomplice in the crime.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I've watched both the Netflick's version and the first season of the British series. I agree the Richardson portrayal of Francis is ideal, the most accomplished evil-doer in a crowd of other would-be evil-doers. Like Mephistopheles he tempts people to commit to what they really want to do and he draws the rewards. I'm looking forward to the two remaining four-part seasons.

I've enjoyed the Spacey 'House' - I saw it first - and while I can easily see the comparisons with the two, it is sufficiently different to hold my attention and anticipate another season. I've found, in general, American remakes of British dramas are inferior for any number of reasons.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Give Michael Dobbs some credit! He wrote the books it's all based on and I recommend his other historical and political fiction. He was an adviser to Margaret Thatcher so had real insight to goings on in Whitehall if not Congress.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"A politician needs a wife, and other people too regrettably. Little elves and sprites to do his bidding, even unwitting pawns who don't know who they serve... and of course one needs a sympathetic ear amongst the men and women of the press, those valiant seekers of the truth."

Ian Richardson played Francis Urquhart with an unctuousness that Kevin Spacey is just not capable of delivering.

Do yourself a favor and watch the original before watching this pale imitation.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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