So what’s in a MacGuffin?


Whether you’re an aspiring movie buff or simply someone who spends their time around a lot of film geeks, chances are you’ve heard the word “MacGuffin” used in conversation more than once.

It’s the type of cinematic term that more ardent fans tend to assume everyone else is familiar with, and thus its meaning often goes unexplained.

So just what exactly is a MacGuffin? And why does it keep cropping up when people talk movies?

Simply put, a MacGuffin is a plot device that motivates the protagonists and antagonists in the film to take action.

It can be anything – a person, an object, maybe even an event. Regardless of whatever form a MacGuffin takes, the plot will always revolve around it (particularly early on in the piece).

There have been plenty of famous MacGuffins over the years, largely due to its recognised effectiveness.

The most well-known is The Maltese Falcon (from, uh…The Maltese Falcon), but other examples include the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, and pretty much any relic Indy set his sights on in the Indiana Jones series.

Don’t let Travolta (or the glow) fool you: that thing is worthless

Despite the prevalence of MacGuffins in film (and wider pop culture besides), it’s worth pointing out that there exists some debate over the exact specifics of what one entails.

Alfred Hitchcock, who popularised the “MacGuffin” name and used the device to great effect several times in his career, felt strongly that whilst it should kick start the narrative into motion, a true MacGuffin should be entirely insignificant to the story overall.

If that’s a little hard to wrap your noodle around, consider this question: Of what actual importance is the Heart of the Ocean necklace to overall story of James Cameron’s Titanic?

The answer is of course “None whatsoever.”

For the majority of the scenes set on the Titanic in 1912, the necklace is of no consequence to what occurs.

And yet the present day framing sequence – without which we would not even have the flashback-based narrative of the film – is highly dependent on the necklace, as searching for it is what brings them in contact with Rose, who is turn then able to tell the crew (and us) her story.

On the other hand, George Lucas, no stranger to a MacGuffin himself, defines the term as representing something that propels the plot and is of chief concern to the story and audience alike.

This was cutting edge MacGuffin tech, back in the day

Take for example the Death Star plans in Lucas’ own Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope. From the moment those things first appear in the opening crawl, virtually every key turning point in the plot is a result of them, and their importance is never lost on the audience.

Taking things a step further (and SPOILERS for anyone out there who still hasn’t seen the movie), the plans are the reason that Luke Skywalker is able to destroy the Death Star during the climax of the film, by virtue of a weak spot they alone could reveal.

If that’s not something important to everyone and everything on both sides of the screen, I don’t know what is!

Personally, I think both styles of MacGuffin work well, as proven by the fact that both approaches to this plot device have spawned numerous classic films.

But I’ll always argue that a truly great MacGuffin not only advances the plot, but irrespective of its significance, also complements the emotional and thematic concerns of the film as well.

The Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a fine example of this.

It’s the Holy Grail of MacGuffins!

In addition to being a source of incredible power that Hitler could use to create an immortal army of evil, it also represents the quest for knowledge in both Indy and his father, and epitomises their fractured relationship to boot.

As much as fans rave about the interplay between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery or the amazing action set pieces, it’s my deeply held belief that what keeps people coming back to Last Crusade is this seemingly simple, yet ultimately remarkable MacGuffin.

By contrast, the least popular Indiana Jones films – Temple of Doom and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – both featured weak MacGuffins and suffered as a result.

Sure, you can argue that there are other issues with those films that contributed to their lukewarm reception, but I think you can safely lay part of the blame at the feet of their core plot devices, which did a poor job of integrating into the story emotionally and thematically.

(Of course, it also didn’t hurt that neither MacGuffin was that compelling conceptually, but I digress…)

Still need more proof?

Compare one of the MacGuffins mentioned earlier, the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, to the MacGuffins used in The Hobbit trilogy, and tell me that the success of the former films and the mixed response to the latter isn’t down in part to their respective plot devices.

This MacGuffin is precioussss….

I say “in part” here because, again, you could argue that The Hobbit movies have several storytelling deficiencies compared to Peter Jackson’s earlier efforts – but even so, I think it’s fair to say that The Lord of Rings benefits immensely from having one core MacGuffin driving all conflicts (physical and emotional) and which lies at the heart of the key themes that underpin the trilogy as a whole.

At the same time, I’m also convinced that The Hobbit struggles to find its feet as a three-part story because it has too many plot devices in play, all of which swim in and out of focus as the key factor spurring our heroes (and villains) on.

There’s the dragon Smaug, who needs to be killed and who (alongside the Dwarven hoard he guards) embodies greed. There’s the Arkenstone, which can unite all the dwarves, but which stands in for madness as well.

Then there’s the Lonely Mountain, which symbolises home, and (much too late in the game) also becomes a strategic concern for wider Middle-Earth.

Alongside all this, there’s also the Morgul Dagger, which hints at a deeper mystery and suggests greater darkness to come.

That’s a lot of different MacGuffins for one series, especially as most represent separate physical and emotional conflicts and relate to unrelated thematic concepts!

I’m not saying that Jackson was wrong to attempt to tell a rich story with complex character motivations, but it does almost feel like he might have been more successful if he’d made either killing the dragon or (more likely) retaking the Lonely Mountain the main motivator of the Hobbit trilogy.

All in all, it’s easy to see why MacGuffins provide so much fuel for cinephile conversation!

So what do you think? Who is right about MacGuffins: Hitchcock or Lucas? And what’s the best ever MacGuffin? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter or Facebook!

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