Screenwriting student Anna Weinstein breaks down the films 21 Grams and Babel in the latest issue of Film International:
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 filmBabel, “communication.” While both films offer a kaleidoscopic view of characters struggling with these conflicts, the films differ in the scope of their presentation. With21 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.