In Britain's 1990 House of Cards, the Machiavellian minister, Francis Urquhart, is referred to as ‘FU' by those around him. In the American adaptation, released this month in a 13-part series available only on Netflix, the congressman's name is Francis Underwood. Same initials, but you never hear them. The inside joke has gone.
Much more had changed in the Netflix version. The U.S. production wasn't just longer. Like much of American political drama, it was bigger and glosser than its British counterpart. The stakes were higher, the story lines more implausible, the characters at times unrecognizable. (Has anyone ever seen a congressional wife as glamorous as Mrs. Underwood? Or, for that matter, an NGO office Anna Wintour would be comfortable holding meetings in?)
Spacey's performance as Underwood lacked the rapier-like realism of Ian Richardson's Urquhart. It wasn't just Spacey's hit-or-miss Southern drawl that was unrealistic, it was his politics too. Would any politician really care about pushing an expensive education bill through the House? A more likely issue would have been defense -- or gambling.
House of Cards isn't the first British production to be heavily made over for American audiences. Fans of the BBC series State of Play, which begins with a House of Commons researcher being pushed to her death on the London Underground, might wonder at the hyperbolic script in the Russell Crowe/Ben Affleck movie adaption. ("Billions of dollars. That's wrath of God money.")
But plausible and watchable don't always mean the same thing. Even fans of original U.S. programming like Scandal, 24, or Political Animals realize we are not watching anything close to an accurate representation of political intrigue. And as for the West Wing, yes there was oodles of intrigue but very little of it political.
So why is American so bad at this game? The difference begins at the source. Compare London's Prime Minister's Question Time to any debate on Washington's Senate or House floors and you'll immediately understand the difference in style. Britain produces politicians who are at ease making inside jokes and classical references (just look at these recent horsemeat scandal jokes by MPs). Their language is articulate, produced by an education that prizes debate. In London, speeches are more likely to be made than read and sarcasm is a plus. Politicians see themselves as entertainers. (Exhibit A: London Mayor Boris Johnson.) The entertainment takes place in Westminster. Screenwriters just have to adapt what they hear.
There is also a difference in substance based on reality. Take a look back at the headlines and you'll see that betrayal at the highest level took place in the Cold War with Kim Philby, Guy Burges, Donald Maclean, and Anthony Blunt (the Queen's curator) all recruited by the Soviets while at Cambridge.