What's a MacGuffin?
I was talking to a friend one day a few months ago about a movie we'd both recently watched and mentioned how an object in the movie was just a MacGuffin. He stared at me like I was speaking another language so I explained to him what it was. I thought there could very well be quite a few people out there wondering what a MacGuffin is, so I decided to write this article to explain it, cover a bit of film history, and give a few examples.
First things first--the definition of a MacGuffin is any item or device used to move a story forward. Something to get the characters working against each other, competing, struggling--doing whatever it is the movie has promised to its audience basically. The actual item or device is interchangeable really, and sometimes--as in the case of Quentin Tarantino's film Pulp Fiction--never even revealed to the audience at all for what it truly is (A briefcase which when opened reveals a brilliant glow). The fact is that the MacGuffin itself doesn't really matter in and of itself, but it matters to the characters enough to move the plot of the movie forward as motivation for the different characters.
So Where Did The MacGuffin Come From?
As the image above hints, Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps is generally regarded as the first film to intentionally use the MacGuffin concept. In The 39 Steps there are in fact two MacGuffins--the actual identity of the 39 steps, and the smuggling of secret plans out of the country.
Although MacGuffins had been used in all forms of storytelling long before Alfred Hitchcock popularised the term and technique in film, he is still the one responsible for the original definition, intentional usage, and backstory behind the name. When asked in an interview to explain the origin of the term MacGuffin, Hitchcock explained:
It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?" and the other answers, "Oh, that's a MacGuffin." The first one asks, "What's a MacGuffin?" "Well," the other man says, "It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands." The first man says "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands," and the other one answers, "Well, then that's no MacGuffin!" So you see, a MacGuffin is nothing at all.
Hitchcock went on to use the MacGuffin device in many of his other films, the term caught on, and people 'in the know' have been referring to it ever since.
Some More Examples
Probably the easiest and most obvious example of a MacGuffin in film is the Maltese falcon statue in the film noir classic The Maltese Falcon. Just about every character in the movie wants to get their hands on the statue for one reason or another (generally money), and it motivates them all to plot, scheme, and struggle thoughout the film in order to get ahold of it.
Another few examples of MacGuffins are:
- The Ark of the covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark
- R2-D2 (more specifically the information he carries) in Star Wars episode IV: A New Hope
- The bags of jewels, money, and laundry in Oscar
- El Corazon in Romancing the Stone
- The meaning of the word 'rosebud' in Citizen Kane
- The Character of Kurtz in the novella Heart of Darkness and its film adaptation Apocalypse Now
- The One Ring in the novels and film adaptation of Lord of the Rings
- The morphine ampoules in The Deep
There are literally thousands of other examples of MacGuffins in film, television, fiction, song, and even mythology. It can be a fun (albeit potentially distracting) pastime to keep an eye out for MacGuffins while watching movies and television shows or reading books--although knowing about MacGuffins may diminish the magic of storytelling a bit for some people. In my opinion, the more we learn about the way an artform is made, the less mystery it holds, yet the more able we are to appreciate the finer points of that artform.