The Americanization of 'House of Cards': Old Story, Fresh Results

Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey in ‘House of Cards’/Image © Knight Takes King Productions

In the long annals of acclaimed British TV dramas that have been appropriated and adapted for American audiences, failure is the most common result. For every “Queer as Folk” on Showtime or Syfy’s “Being Human,” there are at least three Americanized versions of UK television classics that are just so bad they don’t make it past the pilot – and others still that fail farther down the pipeline.

ABC’s disastrous remake of “Life on Mars” was denied a second season order early enough for the show’s writers to turn the first season finale into a series finale. NBC’s criminally awful version of “Prime Suspect” was canceled after the network aired only seven episodes. And then there’s the horrendous mid-nineties “Doctor Who” TV movie by FOX that was originally meant to reboot the series and introduce the character to mainstream America.

Something about translating the material for Americans seems to poison it and render the new interpretation simply unpalatable to its intended audience, as well as everyone else. The most successful approach seems to be for the American remake to keep as many elements from the British original as it can for at least the first few episodes and then build from there into new storylines and plots. It’s what worked for the Americanized “Queer as Folk” and “Being Human,” and hopefully what the folks currently remaking “Broadchurch” over at FOX are doing.

And yet “House of Cards,” the Netflix series based on the hit BBC series of the same name – the one with the second season that will be uploaded to Netflix in its entirety on February 14 – implemented drastic deviations from its source material right from the beginning, breaking the golden rule of adapting a British series for Americans. Sure, the broad strokes are all there. Both shows share the same 140-character summary: Ruthless politician uses unethical scheming and plotting in his quest for top leadership position after being denied a promised appointment. With so many changes and additions, though, the American version is essentially its own unique story.

Let’s look at how we got to this point. First published in 1989, the novel House of Cards by Michael Dobbs was an immediate bestseller in the U.K. At the time, Dobbs was immersed in British politics, working within the Conservative Party. He had been a speechwriter, adviser to Margret Thatcher, and served as the party’s Chief of Staff. The book marked the launch of his second career as a novelist (Dobbs continues to publish and was appointed a member of the House of Lords in 2010).

According to Dobbs, the book started as a project to while away the time on vacation, not long after the 1987 general election. “Margaret Thatcher won that election comfortably, but she made many enemies while doing so – too many, I thought,” Dobbs writes on his personal website. “It inspired me to begin work on a plot – entirely fictional, of course – to get rid of a Prime Minister.”

To enact his fictional conspiracy, Dobbs created one of the most notorious anti-heroes in political fiction, Francis Urquhart – affectionately referred to by his fans as FU. The novel features Urquhart, a conservative party member of British Parliament, using a variety of dirty tricks to undermine and force the resignation of the sitting prime minister, squash rivals, and take charge of 10 Downing Street. Interestingly enough, Dobbs originally had his protagonist kill himself at the end – something he changed with the subsequent sequels, To Play the King and The Final Cut (both of which were also adapted to TV), by adopting an ending closer to how the miniseries finished, in which FU lives, and writing from there. The books have been out of print stateside for quite some time, but a reprinting of House of Cards hits American bookshelves next month.

When the BBC aired the “House of Cards” miniseries with Ian Richardson as Urquhart in 1990, it was a bit of a cultural phenomenon – not just because it was the television version of a bestselling thriller, but also because it so closely matched current events. As the series was premiering, then Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher’s leadership was being challenged within her own party, eventually forcing her to announce her resignation four days after viewers had tuned in for the first episode. In the very first scene of the series, Urquhart takes hold of a framed photo of Thatcher and sighs, “Nothing last forever.”

By its very nature, an American “House of Cards” would have to adjust its core to call itself a proper adaptation. If the series were going to resonate with Americans in the same way the original did with Brits, it would need to absorb and darkly reflect the current political culture. Just as the original book and series were steeped in the politics of its time and place, so must this new American television series. For the U.S. series to carry on the spirit of the original U.K. series, it would have to be as different as Washington D.C of the early 2010s is to London of the early 1990s.

Obviously carrying over the same structure and plot of a political thriller based in British Parliament and dropping it into Congress wouldn’t work. So the American version adds plotlines dealing with education reform, legislation, campaigning, political favors, lobbying, and more. But the biggest deviation is also the series’ greatest strength: its characters. The Americanized FU is Rep. Frank Underwood (SC –D), played by Kevin Spacey, who, like his British counterpart, shares his schemes and plots with the audience by breaking the fourth wall and talking into the camera. Beyond that, they’re almost two wholly different creatures. Richardson’s Urquhart is infused with old British classism and intentionally reminiscent of usurping nobles from classic theater, while Spacey’s Underwood is more likely to evoke a mob boss with a Horatio Alger edge. The U.K.’s Urquhart talks to the audience while duck hunting on his estate; the U.S.’s Underwood does it while eating at his favorite barbeque joint. One it seems is a character created in the tradition of Shakespeare, the other in the tradition of “The Sopranos.”

The American “House of Cards” also differs from its source in the treatment of the supporting cast of characters around FU. While the British version had an almost monarchy-like focus on Urquhart, the American series is more democratic – granting in-depth storylines and subplots to other characters alongside Underwood. Most notably, Mrs. Claire Underwood (played by Robin Wright) is fully developed, with her own ambitions and conflicts to resolve. She’s almost the exact opposite of Urquhart’s wife, Elizabeth (played by Diane Fletcher), a Lady Macbeth stand-in, massaging her husband's shoulders and whispering plots into his ear. Underwood’s mistress and journalistic ally, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), is more established as well, featuring her own storylines and challenging Underwood from the near-beginning of the series, where as Urquhart’s Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) is more in awe of her lover and doesn’t suspect him of his maneuvering – at least at first. Even the drug-addled pawn FU coerces into doing his bidding is given more depth and backstory.

In the end, the approach seems to have worked. The American “House of Cards” has won praise from critics as well as the original novel’s author Michael Dobbs, a Golden Globe Award, and three Emmy Awards. And on February 4, a full ten days before the second season premiere, Netflix inked a deal for a third season – reelection!