How do you adapt a story about post-Thatcher Britain to be about modern-day American politics? This was the challenge faced by the new Netflix series House of Cards, adapted from the British miniseries of the same name. The British series is set in the immediate aftermath of the resignation of Margaret Thatcher, and follows the scheming and political intrigue that follows. (The story was first written as a novel in 1989, a year before Thatcher's real-life resignation.)
The protagonist of the British series is Francis Urquhart, the chief whip of the Conservative Party of the United Kingdom. At the start of the series, Urquhart believes he is about to be rewarded for his loyalty and years of service with a cabinet position, but when he his denied the position he was promised his thoughts immediately turn to revenge. The character of Urquhart, played expertly by Ian Richardson, is a diabolical mix of Machiavelli, Mephistopheles, and Richard III. He manipulates his colleagues, the media, and his lovers, all in the pursuit of power.
While the series is entertaining, there is a lot about it that makes it hard to translate into an American context. There is the obvious difference between the structure of American and British government. The American series also makes its main protagonist a Democrat, changing the character's ideological background from conservative to liberal. The passage of time also means that topics that made sense in the late 1980s, such as the danger from the Soviet Union, don't carry the same resonance in 2013.
The American re-imagining deals with all these problems very effectively. Francis Urquhart is now Francis Underwood, the House Majority Whip. Underwood may be a Democrat but he is no left-wing ideologue, and it becomes clear that he is hardly a bleeding heart of any stripe. The issues have also been updated; the centerpiece legislation of the first season is an education reform bill that pits old-school teacher's unions against reformers who want charter schools and better accountability. This is a debate actively taking place in American politics.
The rest of cast is appropriately updated: Francis's wife goes from being a co-scheming hostess to being a co-scheming executive that runs her own international nonprofit. A key reporter in the series is updated from working at a broadsheet paper to being given a blog and Twitter account.
Underwood gets what may be the most intriguing update. Instead of being a product of Eton and the British upper class, Underwood has a rags-to-riches tale. He is given a well-developed backstory as the product of small-town South Carolina. Unlike Urquhart, Underwood actually faces from genuine setbacks and failures in his quest for power. This is a huge improvement over the original where Urquhart was like a super villain in a world without a single super hero who could actually oppose him. All of Urquhart's plans succeeding, not every plan of Underwood's does.
Not every television "re-imaging" is a success. The 2003 update of the 1970s cult classic Battlestar Galactica was listed as one of the 10 best television shows of the 2000s by Time magazine but nobody knows about the 2007 reboot of The Bionic Woman and everyone has forgotten about ABC's attempt to reboot another 1980s miniseries: V. The new House of Cards is the furthest from being a failure. It is a success, and an example of how to take the best of classic material and update it.