Central Thematic Conflict in 21 Grams and Babel
Screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga is best known for writing ensemble films about the effects of tragedy on human life—how tragedy can both pull apart and bring together. His scripts present a kaleidoscopic view of human interconnection, that people across cultures, borders, and class systems are, when all is said and done, more similar than they are different.
Though his films all deal with the effects of tragedy, each explores a specific thematic conflict that anchors the overarching story and influences the structure of the screenplay (Rabkin 2011: 22-30). His films include multiple equally weighted characters, each with his or her own storyline, and each embodying the theme. The thematic conflict serves to center the story, providing a lens through which we can view these characters on their journeys.
The thematic conflict in Arriaga’s 2003 film 21 Grams is “hope,” and in his 2006 film Babel, “communication.” While both films offer a kaleidoscopic view of characters struggling with these conflicts, the films differ in the scope of their presentation. With 21 Grams, Arriaga employs a microscopic examination of the characters—viewing the characters up close to fully explore their individual growth over the course of the film. With Babel, Arriaga takes a telescopic approach, presenting a grander picture viewed from afar. One is a portrait study, while the other is a study of landscape. And this scopal choice on Arriaga’s part is very much tied to the thematic conflict in each film.
21 Grams is a discussion of the weight or value of human life—specifically, the human soul. Arriaga explores how hope influences one’s happiness, and how without it, life on earth is deemed worthless (Edwards 2012). By presenting a microscopic viewing of these characters, we begin to understand who they are—to see into their souls. This up-close examination not only allows us to get to know the characters, it also serves to exemplify the conflict. When we’re too close to a situation, it’s often difficult to see the bigger picture. And this is what Arriaga does with this film, quite intentionally.
This film is likely best known for its nonlinear story structure, a seemingly chaotic structure in which the scenes appear sequentially out of order until the film’s conclusion when the characters’ individual journeys become one and the past and future become the present (Simons 2008: 111-126). But though the structure and organization of the scenes may seem random and chaotic, in fact, they are intentional. Arriaga balances the scenes to contradict each other as the story progresses, relaying precisely the information he wants the audience to have each step of the journey. And with this unconventional structure, he shines a spotlight on the universal human need to maintain hope.
The concept of hope is very much tied to time. While it’s not possible to have hope for the past, it is quite possible (and necessary) to have hope for the future. By organizing the scenes of this film in such a way that the viewer is uncertain about time—about what constitutes the past, present, and future—the audience is thrown into a state of chaos (much like the story’s characters), and fearful that they shouldn’t have hope (Cameron 2006: 65-78).
For this analysis to make sense, a brief chronological summary of the plot: 21 Grams follows three characters whose lives intersect due to a fatal car accident. Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) is a math professor waiting for a heart transplant. Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts) is a recovering drug addict and wife and mother of two daughters. Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro) is an ex-con who has found Jesus. Jack takes a corner too quickly in his pickup truck and accidentally kills Cristina’s husband and two daughters. Cristina’s husband’s heart is a match for Paul, so Paul receives the heart. After the accident, Jack turns himself in and turns his back on Jesus. Paul seeks out Cristina due to his discomfort with the circumstances under which he received his new heart. Unaware that Paul has her husband’s heart, Cristina befriends him. Once she finds out who Paul is, she is initially upset, but eventually falls in love with Paul and they set off to kill Jack. Meanwhile, Paul’s new heart isn’t taking, and he’s been told that he has only a short time to live. At the end of the story, Paul accidentally (or perhaps purposefully) shoots himself. Jack turns himself in, taking the blame for the shooting (and ultimate death of Paul), but Cristina tells the cops that Jack didn’t pull the trigger. As Paul lies dying in the hospital, Cristina discovers that she’s pregnant with Paul’s baby. Jack returns home to his family, and Cristina returns to her home, pregnant.
Ultimately, this is a hopeful story. Cristina will have another child. And though Arriaga offers glimpses of the future throughout the film, he intentionally excludes this one piece of information. The effect of this choice is that the viewers spend the entirety of the film feeling as hopeless as the characters.
For the first third of the script, readers are disoriented by the structure, supplied only with disjointed fragments of time, and tasked with the job of piecing together these characters’ lives, much like the characters themselves. But thirty-three scenes in, the audience has a firm footing in the present.
It’s important to note, however, that the thirty-third scene does not indicate the end of the first act. When we pull apart the scenes and place them in sequential order, we find that in fact Act 1 is abnormally long, Act 2 is extremely short, and Act 3 is a relatively standard length. This atypical structuring works because of the nonlinear storytelling and because what’s most interesting to audience members is how the characters get themselves to the point where they can have hope. If Arriaga had written the script in chronological order, the first act would end with scene 69. This is the point at which Paul and Cristina decide to pursue their relationship. Arriaga needed a long first act to detail their struggle to find hope, and he structured the script nonlinearly in an effort to embody this central thematic conflict.
The following figure identifies which of the 119 scenes in 21 Grams takes place in the past, present, and future:
Figure 1. 21 Grams: Scenes in Past, Present, and Future
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 F Pr Pr Pr F F F Pr Pr Pr Pr F F Pr Pr Pr 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 F F Pr F F F Pr Past Pr F Pr Pr Pr F Pr Pr 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 Pr F F Pr Pr F Past Pr Pr Pr Pr F Pr Past Pr F 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 F F Past Pr F Pr F F Past F Pr Pr Pr Pr Pr Pr 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 Pr F F F Pr F Pr F Past Pr F Pr Pr Pr F F 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 Pr Pr Pr Pr Pr Pr Pr F Pr F Pr Pr Pr Pr F Pr 97 98 99 100 101 102 103 104 105 106 107 108 109 110 111 112 F Pr Pr Pr Pr Pr Pr Pr F F F Pr Pr Past Pr Past 113 114 115 116 117 118 119 Past Past Pr F F Pr Pr
Each character’s growth hinges on the central conflict. And all three characters’ arcs follow a circular journey: from hope, to no hope, to hope. With the nonlinear structure, Arriaga is able to provide an intimate look at these characters and their psychology. And this is what I mean by a microscopic viewing. The intense up-close study of human life before, during, and after tragedy is more effective when the effect is presented before the cause. Where typically we move from cause to effect, here we are forced to study these characters closely to understand them on a very human level. This is instinctive and inevitable as we are all familiar with our own growth and the causal-and-effect relationships in our lives. By pulling apart these characters’ responses to tragedy, we begin to understand their psychology. This is character study, exploring the question of whether these individuals will survive the tragedy. Will they be able to go on with their lives?
In fact, this is a recurring discussion in the film, the concept of “life going on.” In scene 32, Paul visits with a fertility doctor to collect a semen sample. The doctor tells Paul that it’s unlikely he’ll live to see his child born, to which Paul replies, “Well, life goes on, right?” Though Paul will lose his life, his life will go on in his unborn (and yet to be conceived) child. Something of Paul will linger after his death. Hope. Twenty scenes later (scene 52), this discussion is played out again with Cristina and her father, but taking the opposite side of the argument. At the gathering after the funeral, Cristina’s father tells her, “When your mother died, I thought I wasn’t going to make it. I felt the world was falling on me and that I was never going to get up. But sweetie, life goes on.” And Cristina replies, “You know what I thought when Mom died? I couldn’t understand how you could talk to people again. How you could laugh again. I couldn’t understand how you could play with us. And no. No, that’s a lie. Life does not just go on.” No hope. Still later (scene 65), the discussion goes one step further with Jack and his wife. She visits him in jail and tells him that she’s hired a lawyer, to which he responds that this is “God’s will.” His wife says, “Life has to go on, Jack – with or without God.” It’s not until the end of the film when Cristina forgives Jack that he is able to go on with his life. Jack can’t forgive himself or God, but Christina can. Not only can she, but she must. Her only hope for survival is to find that strength to forgive.
21 Grams concludes with an explanation of the title (every person loses the same amount of weight at the moment of death—twenty-one grams), which offers a subtle clue into Arriaga’s professed intention with this film. Where do those grams go? Is this the soul? Does life go on? Should we have hope?
There’s nothing subtle, however, about the title of Babel. The theme is stated right at the beginning of this film, in the opening credits. It takes only limited knowledge of biblical history to know what this title is meant to symbolize.
Babel follows four loosely but significantly connected storylines: Richard and Susan (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), a married couple vacationing in Morocco, attempting to overcome the loss of their infant child; Amelia (Adriana Barraza), Richard and Susan’s Mexican nanny who travels across the border with the children so she can be at her son’s wedding; Abdullah and his sons, Yussef and Ahmed, a Moroccan family responsible for the accidental shooting of Susan; and Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a Japanese teenager who is deaf and grieving the loss of her mother.
Many scholars have described this film as having a nonlinear structure, but in fact, the majority of the story unfolds in sequential order. And each character’s storyline follows chronologically from one scene to the next. Amelia’s storyline begins very close to the end of Richard and Susan’s, and Richard and Susan’s storyline begins immediately before the Moroccan boys’, quickly catching up by the next scene with Yussef and Ahmed. Otherwise, all four stories are told chronologically.
Most significant here is why Arriaga chose to place Amelia’s story at the end of Richard and Susan’s. The other three stories parallel one another, all happening at the same time; but hers takes place after the shooting (when Richard and Susan are in the hospital). In Amelia’s first scene (the second scene in the film), there’s a phone conversation between Amelia and Richard. After we are first introduced to Yussef and Ahmed and witness the shooting, we jump forward in time to see Amelia with the children in their California home. Richard calls to tell Amelia that Susan is having surgery, and that he’s trying to get his sister-in-law to relieve Amelia so she can go to her son’s wedding. He then asks to speak to his son. While his son chatters about something that happened at school, we hear what sounds like scuffling or a bad connection, and the son asks his father if everything is okay. Richard very convincingly says that everything’s fine—and the son continues with his story. In Richard’s final scene in the film (two hours later), we see his side of this conversation. And we see him crying uncontrollably as the son talks on the other end of the line. There is a poignant father-to-son connection in this moment, demonstrating a father’s need and ability to communicate appropriately with his son; and at the same time, there’s a heart-wrenching disconnect—a father who is unable to truly communicate with his son, and a little boy who is clueless as to what his father is going through (Hull 2007).
And this is why Arriaga chose to place Amelia’s story later than the others: because these two scenes, one at the beginning of the film and one at the end, framing the picture, illustrate the central thematic conflict. All four stories explore the concept that people are often unable and/or unwilling to effectively communicate, most importantly with the people they love. The film examines parent-child relationships, sibling relationships, and husband-wife relationships, and the ways in which people either close themselves off from their loved ones, especially after tragedy (Richard and Susan lost an infant to SIDS, and Chieko lost her mother to suicide), or choose to communicate through negativity and fighting (Yussef and Ahmed fight incessantly throughout), or to separate themselves physically so they’re unable to communicate in an intimate way (Amelia left her son years before the film opens, choosing to live her life in the States).
As noted earlier, Arriaga employs a telescopic viewing of the characters in this film. And by that I mean that the characters are presented amidst the landscape in which they live. This isn’t a character study so much as a study of human nature as a whole. We’re witnessing the life of a family in Morocco; the life of a U.S. immigrant returning ever so briefly to her Mexican home; the life of a troubled Japanese teen; and the life of an American couple struggling to reconnect after the death of their child, and stuck, quite literally, in a foreign land, which serves to symbolize the hellish state in which they’re currently living. Unlike 21 Grams, which imposes a microscopic look at the intricacies of character, Babel offers an almost biblical (like the story of Babel itself) view from afar—where characters can be representative of larger groups of people, to show a sample of life in various parts of the world, and to show the universality of how humans suffer in response to tragedy. And though that suffering takes on different forms, one thing is similar among people across all continents, cultures, and ethnicities: communication is key to survival. Much like the theme of hope in 21 Grams, here again, Arriaga looks to a basic human need to devise the framework for this film. Without the ability to communicate—love, grief, sexuality (another recurring theme in this film)—humans simply can’t go on. They might jump off the ledge (as we fear Chieko has done toward the end of the film).
Where in 21 Grams Arriaga employs brief scenes that say a lot about the characters in short spurts, in Babel, Arriaga affords each storyline lingering scenes. He gives the characters in this script similar screen time, generally in four- to six-minute segments, yet each character has at least one eight- or ten-minute segment.
Figure 2. Babel: Storylines and Screen Time
Moroccan Family Richard and Susan Amelia Chieko 8 min
6 min (including phone call with Amelia)
6 min (including phone call with Richard)
25 min total 32 min total 38 min total 41 min total
As compared to 21 Grams, where the characters’ stories intersect repeatedly throughout the film (due to the nonlinear structure), the stories in Babel do not intersect beyond the phone conversation discussed previously. These four stories, all connected by the gun responsible for the accident (Chieko’s father gave the gun to a Moroccan man while on a hunting trip), all play out separately from one another.
We know immediately how Richard and Susan are connected to Amelia, and how Richard and Susan are connected to Yussef and Ahmed. But we don’t know until the final scene in the film how Chieko’s story fits into the bigger picture. Arriaga drops clues, but it’s not until the final interaction between Chieko’s father and the Japanese cop who’s been looking for him, that we know for sure. And this is yet another way Arriaga uses structure to exemplify the thematic conflict: viewers are tasked with contemplating the connection between this fourth storyline and the others in the film. This troubled deaf girl who struggles to communicate, how does her story intersect with the others? Arriaga very purposefully created this character, and positioned her in the overarching story, to extend the central conflict—the characters across storylines, though connected, do not communicate with one another.
When we study Arriaga’s scripts as a body of work, we see a recurring examination of the human response to tragedy; however, by imposing different central thematic conflicts in each of his scripts, he can authentically explore new sets of characters and focus our attention on universal themes essential to human survival. Structure is key to the success of these scripts, and Arriaga reminds us that nonstandard storytelling structure can be both refreshing and effective when it is used to embody the central thematic conflict.
Anna Weinstein has written and edited for publishers such as education.com, Rosen Publishing, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, Stenhouse, and Guilford Press. She is a developmental editor for Cengage Learning and is currently at work on a book tentatively titled Conversations With Women in Hollywood. Anna is pursuing an MFA in screenwriting from the University of California-Palm Desert.
Aronson, Linda (2010), The 21st Century Screenplay: A Comprehensive Guide to Writing Tomorrow’s Films, Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin.
Cameron, A. (2006), “Contingency, order, and the modular narrative: 21 Grams and Irreversible,” The Velvet Light Trap, no. 58, pp. 65–78.
Edwards, Mike, “Interview: Guillermo Arriaga”, MovieVortex.com.
Hull, Jim (2007), “Babel: Analysis”, Jim Hull’s Story Fanatic, June 28.
Rabkin, William (2011), Writing the Pilot, Los Angeles: Moon & Sun & Whiskey.
Simons, Jan (2008), “Complex narratives,” New Review of Film and Television Studies, vol. 6, issue 2, pp. 111–126.
 There are 119 scenes in 21 Grams (Aronson 2010: 388-391). The turning point (end of Act 1) for the characters comes quite late in the script. For Jack, the break into Act 2 occurs when he’s freed from jail (scene 74); and for both Paul and Cristina, their first-act turning points occur near the end of the film (scene 86).
 Interestingly, the central conflict in this film serves as the overarching conflict for many ensemble films. Many ensembles are in some small (or large) way about what happens when people don’t properly communicate. Though the central conflict in Grand Canyon is more likely something to do with the gap between what should be and what is, the film is fueled by a lack of communication—between white and black, husband and wife, father and son, and so on. The same is true of Crash: an inability or unwillingness to truly communicate with the “other.” And Hereafter: an inability or unwillingness to communicate with the dead. Also note the use of deaf characters in ensemble films that examine the role of communication. We see this in Grand Canyon as well as The Family Stone.