Whether you’re a movie buff or simply someone who spends a lot of time around one, chances are you’ve heard the word “MacGuffin” crop up in film-related conversation more than once. Indeed, “MacGuffin” is one of those cinematic terms that hardcore cinephiles assume everyone else is already familiar with – and as a result, your average moviegoer remains none the wiser regarding what it actually means. So what is a MacGuffin? And why does it keep cropping up when film geeks talk about 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. No matter what form a specific MacGuffin takes, the plot will always revolve around it (particularly early on).
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.
Yet, despite the prevalence of MacGuffins in film (not to mention wider pop culture), not all filmmakers agree on the finer points of how they should work.
Alfred Hitchcock – who popularised the “MacGuffin” term and used the device to great effect several times in his career – felt strongly that while a MacGuffin should set the narrative in motion, it should ultimately be of no real importance to the story overall. If that’s a little hard to wrap your noodle around, consider this question: How vital is the Heart of the Ocean necklace to the wider narrative in James Cameron’s Titanic?
The answer is, of course, “Not at all”; the necklace is irrelevant to the vast majority of scenes set on the Titanic during 1912. However, Titanic’s present day framing sequence – without which we wouldn’t even have the main flashback-based plot of the film – is highly dependent on the necklace, as Lovett’s search for it is how he finds Rose, who then shares her memories with Lovett’s crew (and us). And that’s what makes the Heart of the Ocean Titanic‘s MacGuffin.
Like Hitchcock, Star Wars creator George Lucas is also a big proponent of the MacGuffin. However, unlike Hitch, Lucas defines the term as representing something that propels the plot and is of primary importance – both to the story and its audience.
Take the Death Star plans in Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope. From the moment the plans first referenced in the iconic opening crawl, every major plot beat can be traced back to them (making them a top-shelf MacGuffin), but notably, their significance is never lost on the audience, either. Heck, without the plans, A New Hope wouldn’t even have a happy ending, since they’re the only reason Luke Skywalker is able to destroy the Death Star – and if that’s not something important to everyone and everything on both sides of the screen, I don’t know what is!
What makes a good MacGuffin?
Personally, I think Hitchcock and Lucas’ differing takes on the MacGuffin work equally well, especially considering both approaches have spawned numerous classic films. But I’d argue that a truly great MacGuffin doesn’t solely advance the plot, but – regardless of how significant it is in real terms – also complements the emotional and thematic dimensions of a film, too.
The Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a terrific example of this. Aside from being something Hitler could use to create an immortal army of evil, the Grail symbolises the quest for knowledge (of all kinds) that Indy and his father have embarked on, and also represents their fractured relationship, as well. As much as fans rave about the interplay between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery or the amazing action set pieces, the secret to the Last Crusade’s enduring appeal is actually this simple yet remarkable MacGuffin.
By contrast, the least popular Indiana Jones films – Temple of Doom and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – both feature weak MacGuffins and suffer as a result. Sure, you could argue that there are other issues that contributed to these flicks’ dubious reputations, but at least some of the blame belongs to their MacGuffins, which did a poor job of integrating into the story emotionally and thematically.
(Of course, it also didn’t help that neither MacGuffin was that compelling conceptually, but I digress…)
Still need more proof? Let’s compare one of the MacGuffins I mentioned earlier, the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, to the MacGuffins used in the subsequent Hobbit trilogy.
The Lord of Rings films have one core MacGuffin – the all-powerful, all-corrupting One Ring – that drives all their conflicts (physical and emotional); everything our characters do or want is directly tied to this single object. What’s more, the Ring is also at the heart of the trilogy’s key themes of heroism, bravery, compassion, and decency that underpin the entire trilogy itself. In short? It’s perfect.
On the other hand, The Hobbit movies don’t have one MacGuffin in play but several – 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 gold 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. Director Peter Jackson even tosses the sinister Morgul Dagger into the mix, to hint at deeper mysteries and suggest a greater threat to be unmasked.
That’s a lot of different MacGuffins for one trilogy, especially as most represent separate physical and emotional conflicts and represent unrelated thematic concepts! Certainly, you get the sense that Jackson might’ve been more successful if he focused on one strong MacGuffin – either killing the dragon or (better still) retaking the Lonely Mountain – that fit perfectly like he did with The Lord of the Rings, instead of hedging his bets and cramming in several half-baked options.
Because if that’s one thing Hitchcock and Lucas could probably both agree on when it comes to MacGuffins, it’s that the right one can keep a movie zipping along, while the wrong one (or worse, the wrong ones) can quickly drive it straight into the ground!