House of Cards by Michael Dobbs

House of Cards Michael DobbsIt’s easy to see how politics can provide ripe subject material for novelists. From Whitehall to the White House, the settings of these stories are inevitably concerned with power, money, intrigue and risk-taking, all excellent topics for dark humour and high drama. Given that recent political developments in the United Kingdom have become stranger than fiction, it seemed like an appropriate time to read ‘House of Cards’ by Michael Dobbs. Originally published in 1989, the story follows chief whip Francis Urquhart who will stop at nothing to become Prime Minister, getting rid of his potential opponents in any way possible, mostly by orchestrating various scandals for them to fall into. However, tenacious journalist Mattie Storin is getting closer than she realises to uncovering his web of lies and deceit.

Dobbs was a special adviser, chief of staff and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party during the Thatcher and Major governments and is now a life peer in the House of Lords. His varied political experience ensures that his depiction of Urquhart’s rapid rise to power and the relationship between politicians and the media both appear to be worryingly plausible if slightly dated in some areas. Readers who are less familiar with the peculiar traditions of the British parliamentary system may find some aspects of the book confusing. However, reading ‘House of Cards’ alongside the rapidly changing circumstances of the Conservative leadership contest earlier this month seemed particularly apt and I’m glad I read it at the time I did. It is also worth noting that Dobbs has “tweaked” certain aspects of the plot in more recent editions following the success of the TV adaptations of his books although I’m not quite sure how extensive those revisions actually are.

As well as the recent Netflix series, ‘House of Cards’ was first adapted for television in the UK in the early 1990s. Wherever possible, I usually read books before I watch the subsequent film or television adaptations but in this case, I watched the BBC series first before reading the book. Although it is usually sacrilege to say that the film or TV series is better than the original novel, I think Ian Richardson’s masterful performance as Francis Urquhart undoubtedly coloured my reading of the book and I don’t think I would have appreciated the character’s ruthlessness to the same extent on the page if I hadn’t watched him on screen first. I also think the performance is both more chilling and humorous on screen because Francis frequently broke “the fourth wall” to address the audience directly as events unfolded, whereas the book is told in the third person and his thought process is less visible.

The BBC TV series is largely faithful to the plot in most respects although the second and third books in the trilogy ‘To Play the King’ and ‘The Final Cut’ are said to be markedly different on screen. I have yet to watch the Netflix series of ‘House of Cards’ although I have heard that it is an even looser adaptation in terms of setting which sees the lead character reimagined as Frank Underwood seeking to be President of the United States. As long as the key themes remain the same, it is a story which could potentially be adapted to any political system in the world.

Overall, I wouldn’t say that ‘House of Cards’ is essential reading for those who enjoyed the TV adaptations but those who are particularly interested in Machiavellian politics may enjoy the original source material more.

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “House of Cards by Michael Dobbs

  1. I did not realize House of Cards was first adapted by the BBC. I am an ardent fan of the American version on Netflix, and now will seek out Dobbs’ book. Thanks for the great review.

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  2. I read the trilogy some years ago. I thought the first one (House of Cards) was fantastic, the second one (To Play the King) was really good and the thrid (The Final Cut) was just okay. I haven’t seen the tv series, but I believe they are very different as the books are about British politics and the series is about American politics. Though, I don’t know 🙂 Great review!

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  3. Col

    I came at the Michael Dobbs trilogy the same way as you many years ago – I first watched the TV series on BBC and thereafter in reading the books everything was cast in the memory of Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart. I still enjoyed them though. I’m now an avid fan of the Netflix series – Kevin Spacey is if anything even more Machiavellian than Richardson was! The context is obviously different in both setting and time but the same ruthless pursuit of power and ambition are as riveting as they were in the books and the BBC series. So if you’ve got Netflix I’d wholeheartedly recommend it!!

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  4. Huh. I didn’t know the show was based on a book. I’m a fan of the Netflix adaptation of it and Francis addresses the audience in it as well.

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  5. Unlike most of you, I had read the books even before the BBC series. Actually, I think the BBC series enhanced my thinking about the books because of Ian Richardson and also Susannah Harker, who played Mattie Storin. The Netflix series hangs very lightly on the UK Version, even though Michael Dobbs was involved – I suspect for two very cogent reasons. First, obviously, the routes to the premiership are totally different and second because in the Netflix version Mrs Frank Underwood is a crucially important player, an aspect of the BBC version (where Mrs Urquhart was played by Diane Fletcher) that I have either forgotten or was insignificant.
    They all work though, in their different ways, on the way we see politics and led the way, I suspect to Yes, Minister and its sequel and The Thick of It – so thank you Baron Dobbs

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  6. I loved the original TV series and read all the books back then too. Ian Richardson was so brilliant in that role. Now I finally have Netflix, so I hope to get to see Spacey’s version.

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  7. Great review. I love the show on Netflix, didn’t even know there is a book behind it. Great review. I will make a point of checking out the book.

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  8. I started watching the American version, but I found it too samey as the BBC version (but with glossier looking characters), and while that was only 4 episodes long, the US one was 13. After my first disc went back to Lovefilm, I cancelled the rest, I just thought my life was too short. Although it seems I may have missed out on more plot twists.

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