'Pyongyang': The Book Behind the Shelved Steve Carell North Korea Movie

Guy Delisle's original graphic novel is less "paranoid thriller" and more bemused travelogue
Guy Delisle/Drawn & Quarterly

One of the more unexpected developments to come from the still-unfolding events concerning North Korea’s role in the Sony hack and the potential connection to the (now-shelved) Sony comedy The Interview was the news Wednesday that New Regency has dropped plans to adapt Pyongyang into a vehicle for Steve Carell, with Gore Verbinski as director. For most people, this news likely elicited the response “Wait, what’s Pyongyang?”

Described in reports as “a paranoid thriller about a Westerner’s experiences working in North Korea for a year,” the movie sounds like an extremely loose adaptation of its source material, a 2003 graphic novel by Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle (In the U.S., the book was released in 2005, re-titled Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea). Far from being “a paranoid thriller,” the graphic novel is instead a comedic travelogue of Delisle’s two-month stay in the capital of North Korea, where he’s working as a liaison between a French animation company and a South Korean studio that work has been outsourced to.

That’s not to say that Pyongyang lacks political awareness. Much of Delisle’s book centers on the country's totalitarian regime and the social and cultural oppression in the city, from his problems bringing certain material into the country to being told that there are no disabled people in North Korea because everyone is born able-bodied. However, the tone of the book is more grounded and bemused than your average “paranoid thriller” — ironically, something more in line with earlier Steve Carell projects, in many ways.

Pyongyang is just one of Delisle’s travelogues. He’s also responsible for Shenzhen: A Travelogue From China (originally published in France prior to Pyongyang, but issued in the U.S. afterward), Burma Chronicles and Jerusalem: Chronicles From the Holy City, in addition to a number of other works including A User’s Guide to Neglectful Parenting and Aline and the Others.

Following reports that the Pyongyang movie was being dropped Wednesday, a number of comic creators, retailers and fans made a point of noting on social media that Delisle’s original book remains available. While the lack of a movie may mean that the world is robbed of the chance to see Steve Carell become increasingly convinced that the North Korean authorities are out to get him, the fact that the graphic novel is receiving renewed attention as a result offers some upside on what is turning out, otherwise, to be a dark and depressing story.

Pyongyang is currently available in book and comic book stores.

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