Posts Tagged ‘Michael Dobbs’

Multiple Houses of Cards

June 30, 2017

I have only recently been struck by the extent to which multiple has taken over as a favored synonym of many, numerous and several. The typical dictionary definition of multiple  as an adjective is “consisting of, having, or involving several or many individuals, parts, etc.”; only a few give it as a synonym of many, but among these few is the OED, which gives citations going back to 1642. So it isn’t as recent as I thought. It is not, however, entirely a recency illusion on my part; a glance at Google Ngrams shows a conspicuous rise in the use of multiple in the course of the 20th century, while many, numerous and several  have declined or remained flat.

While I don’t use it much myself, I like the way multiple covers many and several, and, since the boundary between these two is vague and subjective, it comes in handy when the number is in this fuzzy zone. In what I am going to discuss the number if four, and the items are the different versions of House of Cards.


In the beginning was the novel by Michael Dobbs, published in 1989, and in the end the American TV series, begun in 2013 and recently renewed for a fifth season. In between came the British TV miniseries (1990) and a revised version of the novel (2013).

As with many phenomena of popular culture, I am a latecomer to this one as well. A few years ago I saw reruns of a few episodes of the BBC series; as far as I can remember, I was somewhat intrigued, but not enough to make a point of watching the whole thing. It is only this year that, since several (multiple?)  of our friends and acquaintances have mentioned it, we decided to watch the American series from the beginning. At the same time I set out to read both versions of the book.

Before comparing them, let me refer to Michael Dobbs’ afterword to the revised version, where, among other things, he tells us of the book’s genesis. He seems to have begun writing it a few weeks after the June 11, 1987, general election in the United Kingdom, in which Margaret Thatcher was returned to the prime ministership for a third consecutive term. Dobbs, who had been her chief of staff, was told by the Deputy Prime Minister that “[t]here’s a woman who will never fight another election.” While the prediction proved true, it was not until November of 1990 that her party forced her out of office. Dobbs, however, imagined that would happen sooner, and he put the plot of his novel in what John Le Carré (in A Small town in Germany) calls the “recent future”, most likely 1992, which is when the next general election would be due (and in fact did take place), though the correspondence of dates and days of the week is that of 1993 — probably a mistake by Dobbs, who admits to having finished three bottles of wine before beginning to write.

In the book, then, instead of the real John Major having completed a year and a half in office before winning the election (though by a reduced margin), the fictional Henry Collingridge has had four years, and also wins reelection, by an even smaller margin. In Dobbs’ imagination, then, Margaret Thatcher must have resigned in 1988. And while the book wasn’t published till 1989, and the BBC series was shot in 1990, the plot’s implied dating didn’t change. It’s an interesting coincidence (or was it?) that Thatcher’s resignation happened just as the BBC series was airing.

The afterword also tells us that the prospect of the American series starring Kevin Spacey was, for Dobbs, an “opportunity of reworking the  novel — no great changes, no one who read the original will think it a different book, but the narrative is a little tighter, the characters more colorful, and the dialogue perhaps crisper.”

The differences in narrative, characters and dialogue between the original and the revision are, to me, that in the latter they are those characteristic of scripted television, while in the former they are more like those involving real people. Indeed, in many respects the revision reads like a novelization of the BBC series, which was written by Andrew Davies, a man with vast experience in screenwriting but, unlike Michael Dobbs, none in politics or journalism; it so happens that the primary protagonists of both novel and series are a politician (Francis Urquhart) and a journalist (the beautiful young Mattie Storin).

One recurring feature of both the British and the American TV series is the stream of Richard-the-Third-ish asides to the camera by Francis Urquhart/Underwood, which I have found annoyingly gratuitous. They are not to be found in the original, but the rewrite incorporates them in the form of epigraphs at the beginning of each short chapter (the original is not divided into chapters) and an epilogue at the end.

And I cannot understand how Michael Dobbs can claim the change in the character and the story of Mattie Storin is not a “great change”. Both versions start with a section describing Mattie’s waking. In the original there is an explicit reference to her experience of “sex as a single girl”;  the revision replaces this by a remembrance of  resisting  the advances of a “creep”. The original section ends as she “thr[ows] back the duvet and clamber[s] out of bed”; the revision adds to this the discovery that her underwear drawer is bare and  a search for a pair of knickers.

In both versions Mattie gets into trouble with her editor, Greville Preston, but develops a working relationship with the deputy editor, John Krajewski. In the original this relationship leads to a passionate affair; in the revision she has one with Francis Urquhart instead.

In the original it is in the course of a discussion with John that she figures out the foul means (including murder) that FU has employed in his drive for the primer ministership, and she confronts him about his misdeeds in a climactic meeting on the  roof of Parliament. He cynically admits them, believing that it would be a matter of her word against his, but after she tells him that she has recorded their talk he throws himself off the roof.

In the revision Mattie is still in the throes of her crush on Francis when she meets him on the roof, and it is only from something he says that she solves the mystery. And after his confession he throws her, not himself, off the roof, and goes on to become prime minister. This, of course, retrospectively paves the way for the two sequels that Dobbs wrote as novels and Davies as TV series.

A small but telling difference is in the name of the newspaper that Mattie works: in the original it’s the real Daily Telegraph; in the revision (and the TV series) it’s the fictitious Chronicle, in the time-honored tradition of TV shows.

Another small but not particularly telling one: Urquhart’s wife, originally Miranda, gets the cartoonish name Mortima in the revision. In both version she is largely conspicuous by her absence, unlike television’s Elizabeth, who plays a prominent part.

Next: some comments about the Netflix series.