If you get hives when you read the typical someday-my-prince-will-come princess stories, then Jane is the gal for you. Twenty years ago, Martin Baynton wrote the book Jane and the Dragon, about a twelve-year-old girl who decides to do things a little differently: she rescues the prince, befriends the (not-so-fierce) Dragon and decides to become a knight-in-training instead of a lady-in-waiting. Two years ago, the book was brought to life as a TV series when Baynton joined with Richard Taylor and Weta Workshop (masterminds behind a little movie franchise known as the Lord of The Rings trilogy) to create a show, the first five episodes of which are now available on DVD. Babble talked to the author about Jane’s influence on girls of all ages. – Jennifer V. Hughes
How did you come up with the idea for Jane and the Dragon?
I was writing a story about the last of the dragons – more of a “boy” book – and a young girl told me that she hated fairy stories because the girls were such wimps, always waiting for the boys to arrive. Girls had such a hard time of it, and I thought I’d love to write a modern fairy tale where the girl is the author of her own future. The two ideas came together of this young girl who could find the last of the dragons, and they create a friendship that allows her to fulfill her dreams and have her own adventures. The more I thought of it, it really turned the story on its head. Instead of having the knight slay the dragon, she befriended it, which would be the girls’ way of solving the problems of the world.
You obviously took great care to make Jane a strong, powerful and smart girl. Do you think that kind of character is missing in a lot of today’s books and shows?
I think it’s come a long way since when Jane first came out, but I don’t think the message is any different today. While there are huge wonderful opportunities for girls, the environment in which they confront those opportunities is just as challenging today. Really the heart of the Jane story is about your dreams – she’s expected to be a lady in training, but she wants to be a knight, so she has her own dreams and she goes for them.
What kind of feedback from girls do you get about the show?
It’s extraordinary, very moving. The exciting thing is that [the fanbase] goes from very young girls, right up to the thousands of girls who have MySpace pages who have to be twelve-plus. A lot of the fans who write Jane fan stories are teenagers and they are fascinated by what they see as the love interest. For the very young girls it’s all about how they are so glad that she stands up for herself. When I was writing the story and making the show, what I was always trying to get through was what my daughter was like at that age. Girls have a very refined sense of righteousness; any small grievance on the playground, if they see a small injustice they feel absolutely outraged by it and they want to do something about it. That’s why it’s the eight- and twelve-year-old girls who see adverts for hunger and starvation they go to their Mums and Dads and get them to join the monthly payment systems. It seems to be when they look outside of themselves and look at justice in the world. The Jane story at the heart is about doing justice, because she wants to be a knight.
You and Richard Taylor are from New Zealand and the show first aired in Canada. Do you think there are any elements of the show and book that are hard to translate to American audiences?
No, I don’t think so. I think the whole kind of romantic era of knights and maidens is so international, like the Robin Hood stories. It’s a byproduct of English history that has been romanticized for generations – the Walt Disney movies did it, the Shrek movie did it.
What has it been like to work with Taylor, whose creatures were so cool in Lord of The Rings?
Well, we worked very hard in the beginning to create a very different look. It’s Weta’s first children’s animation project and they wanted to make sure it was one of the most beautiful things out there. We spent nearly a year perfecting the show. The challenge we gave our designers was that if you froze the DVD on any frame it would look like a picture out of a book.
How much of Jane’s world is based on real history?
“Around the year 800 or 900, it was really difficult to be a child.” Back when Jane is set, which is around the year 800 or 900, it was really difficult to be a child, because children were sent into servitude at a very young age. All the characters (in the books and show) don’t get paid. They get their food and lodging and they are lucky to be working at the castle. To be in servitude in the castle was a huge step up from normal life, but they didn’t have much free time. We tried to explain that in the stories. Jane will always strive to do the smart thing; sometimes she learns it has consequences for other people that she didn’t think about. It may have a domino effect that she didn’t expect. Jane is dealing with a social infrastructure that is really true to the period.
Sometimes you talk about Jane as if she’s a real person …
Oh, she is. For the last twenty years she’s been real to me. Jane is like my third child. You want her to be the best she can be. I’m very proud that there is a school play now about Jane. She’s had a very interesting life and I do feel very proud of her.