February 18, 2013

A New Deck

a review of “House of Cards” — a Netflix original

There is a long history in American television of attempting to repackage British productions for an American audience. Some of these have been brilliantly successful, such as “All in the Family,” but others, such as the one substituting Bea Arthur for John Cleese in a version of “Fawlty Towers” (even the name of which I have mercifully forgotten) much less so.

The American version of “House of Cards” is loosely based on the BBC production of the same name — and for ease of reference from now on I’ll refer to them as Nhoc (for Netflix) and Bhoc (for British). The most important thing to note is that this is more a case of “inspired by” then “adapted from.” (Think of My Own Private Idaho in relation to Henry V — and the Shakespearean reference is not inappropriate, as I will note in a moment.)

But first let me offer a brief assessment of Nhoc on its own merits. Netflix took the unusual step (though perhaps not so unusual for them) of releasing all thirteen episodes of the first “year” at the same time, so viewers could move through the story at whatever pace they liked, rather like what you can do with a DVD of a whole season. It took me about two weeks, viewing just about one episode each evening, and sometimes two. So, yes, it is that good. There are uniformly good performances, tight scripting, and — always important when there is an original out there which is in the minds of at least some — enough twists and turns in the plot to keep even those familiar with the prototype guessing and hooked.

That being said, the two versions are very different. First is pace: Nhoc takes thirteen episodes to cover what Bhoc dealt with in four. (There are 12 episodes in Bhoc; the market only knows how many will be needed to flesh out its American cousin.) This allows the Americans to develop more characters to much greater depth and complexity than the British production permitted. This is perhaps most notable in the case of the principal character’s wife — she is almost a silent partner in Bhoc, but generates a significant storyline, including adversarial notes, in Nhoc.

In both versions, of course, the notable technique of the principal character in direct address to the camera, both with words and knowing looks, remains the same — but, ah, the difference in effect. Bhoc has, for all its political modernity, an underlying Shakespearean quality, which often emerges in textual citation, as well as general theme (Lady Macbeth, anyone?). And of course, Ian Richardson was a notable Shakespearean actor on screen as well as stage, and is a natural for the soliloquy and aside. Which is not to say that Kevin Spacey doesn’t carry off his relationship with the audience just as well.

But this is also where one of the significant differences of tone comes in: Francis Urquhart (Richardson) is a patrician Tory; Francis Underwood (Spacey) is a plebeian Democrat. The Englishman is all charm and wit, and draws the audience into his conspiracy; the American more brusque and snide — a self-confessed hardscrabble boy from South Carolina (the southern accent giving a bit of that suave gentility that came more naturally to Ian Richardson), but who seems not so much to care if we are on his side or not. The original F.U. (and unless I missed it the American version doesn’t pick up on the delightful acronym) romances the viewer and draws one into the plot; the later version keeps us informed — though as the plot twists reveal, not quite so well-informed as we might think. To cite the old distinction that Hitchcock made famous, Bhoc has suspense — we know what is going to happen and wait for it — while Nhoc indulges in a few mysteries to keep us on our toes. Each technique provides its own delight, but they are different in feeling.

The political difference also affords a tonal difference to the characters: Richardson is a conservative idealist; Spacey a pragmatic realist — which is not to say that both of them don’t know their way around getting things done — and while both of them are clearly working for their own ambitions and advancement, Richardson’s character seems to have at least convinced himself that there is a higher cause (particularly in the middle episodes of Bhoc, which Nhoc has yet to release, in which F.U. provokes and then prevents a constitutional crisis — so we shall see!) But this difference in tone pervades much of the general atmosphere and style: in spite of the fact that both versions deal with political corruption, and high crimes and misdemeanors (including murder), Bhoc is clearly satirical, with more wry and colorful humor, while Nhoc tends more towards the film noir end of the spectrum: even the musical scores reflect this difference, with British echoes of Purcell and Parry, while America’s suggests an upcoming episode of “The Sopranos.” Bhoc visibly comments on its own satirical roots, in shots of literal rats creeping on Westminster Bridge and the back streets near the Houses of Parliament; Nhoc takes itself much more seriously as a gritty political drama with occasional sly commentary and sidelong glances.

Both are well worth watching, and stand or fall on their own; which of them one prefers will likely be a matter of taste or what one is in the mood for. I greatly enjoyed the BBC production when it was first broadcast years ago, and recently re-viewed the whole series on Netflix itself, prior to the announcement of the American adaptation. My first thought on hearing that news was, to wonder how they will analogize the parliamentary government of England with the American system — and so far they have done so primarily by focusing on the conflicts within the party that happens to have the presidential chair.

Ultimately the true test of the value of Netflix’s effort, I suppose, is that I’m eager to see the next thirteen episodes and would start watching them this evening if they were available!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


JCF said...

I haven't seen either "HoCs", but I did hear an (NPR) interview w/ Kevin Spacey, and he was *very aware* of his character's "F.U." name acronym.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

JCF, I heard that interview, too. This may come down to the fact that Americans address each other by initials less often than the English. At least that's my impression.

I'll keep my ears open to hear if anyone calls VP Underwood "FU" in the next batch... whenever it comes along.

WSJM said...

I loved the British HoC, and have it in my Netflix streaming queue to watch again, though I haven't gotten to it. Ian Richardson was magnificent as Urquhart. Also have the new Netflix HoC queued up, and one of these days...!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

W, I had the pleasure of meeting Sir Ian once, back in 1973, when I was performing in a production of 12th Night in Princeton. He was there doing a lecture and came to the performance, and most graciously chatted with all the cast members afterwards.

The only word I can use to describe his Urquhart is "delicious." The way he blends charm and malice is delightful. And he seems to enjoy the role so much! I think that is part of what makes it so engaging...