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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

Thanks to my mother’s English heritage, and her dedicated preservation of it, I may be one of the few non-British viewers to have seen the original House of Cards long before the American remake. Having just “binge-viewed,” as Netflix no doubt intended, the remake – now the talk of the chattering classes and the entertainment industry – I wonder if this was a disadvantage for me. I was left constantly comparing the two, and while the American House of Cards is good television, beautifully made and surprisingly addictive, it is nothing compared to the BBC’s 1990 masterpiece.

As many readers likely now know, 2013’s version of House of Cards features Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood, a skilled but utterly amoral House Majority Whip who, refused a major cabinet post by the new president, schemes his way to the top over the bodies of his rivals. Along for the ride, consciously or not, are his mistress, an ambitious reporter played by Kate Mara; a troubled congressman Underwood ruthlessly uses and discards; and the one person he never truly betrays, his loyal but conflicted wife.

It has its virtues, no doubt. Spacey is brilliant, as he always is when he plays monstrous but charming and fascinating anti-heroes. The machinations of both press and politicians seem far more realistic than on such idealized shows as The West Wing. And under the supervision of talented film director David Fincher, the show looks extraordinary, with cinematography and production design that easily surpasses most current feature films. Nonetheless, it doesn’t quite work; and likely because it either ignores or consciously throws aside everything that made the BBC House of Cards a landmark and a legend in the history of British television.

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.

The same goes for his wife. Netflix’s Claire is a conflicted and ambiguous character, uncertain of herself and her marriage, struggling with the onset of middle-age and her regrets over the path she’s traveled thus far. We’re meant to empathize, and we do. The BBC’s Elizabeth is just as, if not more evil than her husband, a formidable Lady Macbeth who both motivates and aids her husband in his conspiracies. She isn’t nearly as likeable, but she’s a far more interesting, and – one suspects – honest portrayal of a consummate political wife.

As the above might suggest, the British House of Cards is much less complicated than its American counterpart; but this is much to its advantage. At times, the American version is so convoluted it is essentially incomprehensible. There often seems to be no logic in Underwood’s moves, and even when his plan is finally revealed, it seems so flimsy that it couldn’t possibly succeed. Urquhart’s machinations, on the other hand, are eminently clear, and his road to power – and who has to be disposed of along the way – is obvious from the beginning. This may not lend itself to surprising twists of plot, but it does give it a degree of suspense that its American remake lacks.

Indeed, the main reason that the British original is superior seems to be that it is simply shorter. Netflix’s remake runs for 13 hour-long episodes; the original requires only four, and its concision saves it from the confusion and boredom that occasionally marks the American version. Marginal characters from the original are expanded in the remake well beyond their usefulness or even interest. An alcoholic and drug-addicted aide in the BBC version, for example, plays a small but important role in the plot; his American counterpart is a major character, but he’s a great deal less interesting. (He’s also far less credible. He’s supposed to be a dissolute wreck, but looks like a man who hits the gym twice a day.) The same goes for Underwood’s reporter-mistress, who often seems to be wandering around in a daze, whereas in the original she’s an indelible portrait of tragic naiveté.

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The biggest difference between the two series, however, may simply be – oddly enough – a moral one. The American version strives for nuance. It preaches that no one is truly evil and no one is truly good: We live in a world that is compromised by its complexity. Despite all the evil it depicts, it does not approve of it, and clearly wants to leave us with the feeling of having witnessed an entertaining but ultimately enlightening sermon on the corruptions of the material world.

The British version is paradoxically less ambiguous but far more courageous. It revels in the evil it depicts, because it knows that we will, and as a result makes a much more disturbing point: People do evil things, it seems to say, because we enjoy doing them. Just as Urquhart enjoys the ruthless exercise of secret power, we enjoy watching him do it; and when the series finally confronts us with the consequences, we are less morally outraged than shocked by this sudden insight into our own capacity for vicarious sadism and, perhaps, forced to think about it in a way we never would have otherwise. Whereas the American House of Cards appears to think it is insightful due to its complex shades of grey, the British House of Cards is far more daring and morally enlightening due to its stark and uncompromising black and white. It makes us wonder if we too, on some level, are evil, and without a hint of preaching involved. “You might very well think that,” the series seems to say in Urquhart’s most famous phrase, “I couldn’t possibly comment.”

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor who lives in Tel Aviv.

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All Comments   (13)
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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