It’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.