Tillie by David Chester | Script Revolution




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"Tillie; A Mennonite Maid" (1904 American novel)
In 1890s Pennsylvania Dutch Country, a gifted farm girl rebels against her tyrannical father and the strict religious beliefs of her community to pursue her dream to become a teacher.

A kerosene lamp illuminates the austere world of TILLIE GETZ (12) as she studies the Bible—the only book she’s allowed to read at home by father JACOB (35), a humorless farmer. Tillie’s attempts to clarify a passage are met with Jacob’s reminders to get to bed. Tomorrow is school, after which she must return immediately to help Jacob in the celery beds. This is Tillie’s world.

But school means hope. Beloved teacher MARGARET (25) recognizes Tillie’s intellectual gifts and rewards her with the classic novel Ivanhoe. As Tillie reads it, she loses herself in the story. That night, Jacob finds Tillie reading Ivanhoe by candlelight. He beats her unmercifully and burns the book. Tillie’s stepmother and siblings stand by, knowing better than to interfere.

Tillie falls ill and misses school. Margaret visits and is shocked to learn what Jacob has done. She apologizes for giving Tillie the book. But Tillie is glad she did; her only concern is now she’ll never know the ending! Margaret promises she will, and allows Tillie to read novels in class. Tillie does, imagining places she can only dream of seeing beyond her small town of New Canaan— and the unwanted advances of her none-too-bright classmate, ABSALOM (13).

Suddenly Jacob decides Tillie has “learned enough for a girl”; she will leave school to care for her siblings and help on the farm. Margaret protests. Tillie could become a great teacher! But Jacob’s word is law. Margaret will soon marry and leave New Canaan, but before she does, she gives Tillie the books she’ll need to one day prepare her for the teacher’s exam. Tillie, whose greatest dream is to follow in Margaret’s footsteps, must now pursue her dream alone.

Margaret continues to send books and letters to Tillie via DOC (50), New Canaan’s kindly doctor, who hides them for Tillie in a secluded grove. For the next four years, Tillie and Margaret maintain their secret correspondence while fulfilling the endless duties expected of them as women. Tillie also struggles to keep Absalom and his growing romantic interests at bay.

Now 16, the realities of farm life have crushed Tillie’s dream of being a teacher. But one day Tillie, an Evangelical, attends a Mennonite neighbor’s funeral. When Tillie hears the reverend’s uplifting sermon, she becomes convinced God has called her to be a teacher. Tillie confides in her sympathetic AUNT EM (40s, Jacob’s sister), also a Mennonite. Despite Jacob’s protests, Tillie is re-baptized, renounces all vanity and dons the black garb and white cap of the Mennonite women. Absalom, also a Mennonite, is certain his and Tillie’s futures are interwoven.

Tillie and Em concoct a plan to have Jacob hire out Tillie to work at Em’s hotel as a maid. This will give Jacob money and Tillie the chance to study freely. Soon Harvard graduate WALTER (22) arrives to board at the hotel and teach at the local school. With Em’s blessing, Walter tutors Tillie so she can eventually pass the teacher’s exam. A friendship blossoms—which is threatened when Absalom arrives and forces Tillie to kiss him. Walter intervenes, but Absalom threatens to get him fired: his father is the Board of Education president. To shield Walter, Tillie pretends to like Absalom.

On another night, as Tillie studies, a curl escapes from her cap. She rushes to push it back, but Walter stops her: it’s beautiful, just as God made it. Something stirs in Tillie. Soon she lets all her curls fall free. This sign of vanity gives Em and the Mennonite Elders no choice but to publicly shun her. Tillie bids Walter farewell and returns to life in hell on Jacob’s farm. Absalom starts to court her and her hopes for the future vanish.

Tillie, now 18, secretly meets Walter at a town event to confess she only feigned interest in Absalom so Walter could keep his job. Also, she’ll never be a teacher; she’s no longer ready. Walter insists she is and must take the upcoming exam! For a tender moment, they hold hands. Jacob finds them, a brawl ensues, Walter is fired and forced to leave town. But with Walter’s words of encouragement in her ears, Tillie secretly takes the teacher’s exam, aces it and, to her surprise, the Board hires her to replace Walter. Jacob (also a Board Member) gladly votes for her, intending to take all $40 of her monthly salary.

Tillie’s dream has come true; she now stands where Margaret once stood, inspiring others. But when Tillie collects her first pay at the General Store, she discovers Jacob arrived earlier and collected a long-awaited letter from Walter addressed to her. Tillie races home. Jacob demands her salary; Tillie demands Walter’s letter. Jacob says he burned it! Tillie slaps him. He grabs his strap; she grabs a knife. If he ever touches her again, she will kill him! She says goodbye to her stepmother and siblings and boards at the General Store.

The next day Absalom warns Tillie that Jacob will get the Board to fire her for insubordination at the next meeting. But if Tillie will marry him, Absalom will make sure she wants for nothing. Tillie gently tells him she can never be his. He leaves, crushed.

With no one in her corner, Tillie plans to move to nearby Lancaster to be a maid or seamstress — anything until she can be a teacher again. As she’s about to leave, Walter, who now works with Margaret’s professor husband, arrives with a letter from Margaret. Margaret has never forgiven herself for leaving Tillie, but now she can make up for it. She invites Tillie to live with her family and study at the Millersville Teacher’s College, then travel to Europe for the summer to visit the places Tillie could “only dream of seeing.” Armed with hope, Tillie sets out to resign before she is fired. But first, Walter admits that in his letter (the one she never received) he confessed strong feelings for Tillie. Tillie admits she feels the same about him. They decide to leave together that night.

Tillie interrupts the Board Meeting to announce her great news, and resigns, leaving Jacob in shock. She then finds Em and tells her how much she loves her. In accordance with her Mennonite beliefs, Em cannot acknowledge Tillie. But Tillie embraces Em, and at the last moment, Em touches Tillie’s hand. A bond has been repaired.

Tillie says goodbye to the people she’s known her whole life. As she and Walter set off on their new adventure, Tillie sees Jacob in the hotel window… powerless to stop her.

All Accolades & Coverage: 

-Pitch Now Screenplay Competition 2019 FINALIST
-Screencraft Public Domain Screenplay Contest 2019 Finalist

"This screenplay does an excellent job building Tillie's character. The early pages give the reader a clear sense of just how gifted and intellectually curious she is thanks to the way she asks about the Bible and reads novels voraciously (despite the risk). In other words, the idea that Tillie is "hungry to learn" is palpable. She's a really likable lead too. Her considerate, humble personality is well-captured as she divides her cinnamon roll and supposes she'll never have "fancy things". Of course, it's easy to sympathize with Tillie as Jacob abuses her, and because her precociousness is so evident, Jacob deciding she's done with school feels like an enormous escalation. Jacob's physical abuse is his most abhorrent trait, but the fact that he's almost proud of finishing Tillie's mother's funeral "in an hour" is a clever detail to convey his dubious personality as well. Absalom is also well-written. The descriptors "sweet" and "dumb" on page 57 feel perfectly appropriate. And, because Absalom is so smitten with Tillie, his bad news for her on page 111 is especially intriguing; we wonder if he might be lying to her about her job in order to change her mind about marriage. After all, he's already lied to Walter. Lastly, the dialogue is consistently strong. It's well-paced and the accents are smartly captured."

"This has all the delicacy of plotting and nuance of emotion of a 19th century novel, and the writers clearly have adapted all the lessons of good drama from Austen and Bronte (and their offspring). Tillie is an expertly navigated character, her unflappable dignity and sense of female honor exactly molded to resemble that of Jane Eyre, and there's nothing wrong with that if it is astutely done, and it is. It finds its own individual topic of exploration in the religious angle found here, with Tillie's coming-of-age found in her implicit critique of the Mennonite lifestyle when she disavows it - but continues to live an even more deprived life. It's a genuine show of her self-respect and the strength of her goals, even if she has resigned never to reach them. The portrait of this character is simply very strong, and has all the emotions of sadness, melancholy, desire, admiration, etc. that is a prerequisite of these sort of narratives. Dialogue and interaction between characters is strong and believable, and every scene is calibrated to exact specifications while never going overboard in scenes of violence or overt emotion. Respectable, competent writing all the way of a strongly conceived story."

Submitted: July 29, 2019
Last Updated: April 14, 2020
Times Downloaded: 13
Last Downloaded: May 11, 2020

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The Writer: David Chester

A Los Angeles native, David Chester's skills as a songwriter and pianist initially brought him to Tokyo, Japan, where he was presented with so many creative opportunities that he decided to set down roots. Realizing he wasn't seeing the stories that were important to him, he turned to screenwriting and filmmaking. David's brand is "female-driven dysfunctional family drama." He has written five commissioned feature screenplays to date, four of which have been produced, with one currently on Netflix and two on Amazon Prime. Of his three original feature screenplays, all have placed highly in U.S. screenwriting competitions, especially “Big Sister,” a three-time finalist and first prize winner... Go to bio
Law Firm: Pumilia & Adamec LLP 225 South Lake Avenue, Suite 300 Pasadena, California 91101
Lawyer: Patrick J. Gorman, Esquire

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