Very simply put, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or Maguffin) is the thing that drives the plot of the film forward. It very often provides the conflict between the protagonists and antagonists but actually has very little, if any, other significance or importance whatsoever.
A MacGuffin may take any form, perhaps something concrete like a briefcase of money or something more abstract like a quest for power or glory. A good test to see whether something is indeed a MacGuffin is whether it is interchangeable with something else. Does it really matter if everyone is searching for some secret blueprints or could it quite conceivably be a cure for a disease? If so then it’s probably a MacGuffin.
The term was invented (or at least popularised) by a certain Mr Alfred Hitchcock (some say it was actually screenwriter and friend of Hitchcock, Angus MacPhail who coined the term) who became renowned for using the technique in his films. In an interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock described the MacGuffin as follows:
One man says “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?”, and the other answers, “Oh, that’s a McGuffin”. The first one asks “What’s a McGuffin?” “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 McGuffin!” So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.
Clearly not one for clear explanation is Mr Hitchcock. Still, nice to hear it in his own words. He has also said that the audience doesn’t actually care what the MacGuffin is, which could explain his rather ambiguous description of it. George Lucas on the other hand said that the audience should very much care about the MacGuffin “almost as much as the dueling heroes and villains on-screen.”
The theory behind a MacGuffin has been around since before Hitchcock, however. Back when films were told with title cards and over-exaggerated facial expressions, an actress named Pearl White starred in serials that would have MacGuffin-like plot devices, although she would refer to them as ‘weenies’. Not quite as nice sounding as ‘MacGuffin’ is it?
Examples of MacGuffins
- Rosebud (Citizen Kane) – The search for the meaning of Charles Foster Kane’s last word is perhaps the most famous example of a MacGuffin and one that has become engrained in film culture and parodied countless times in popular culture.
- R2-D2 (Star Wars) – Some may not realise it, but R2-D2 is probably the central character of Episode IV, as it’s the mischievous little droid who carries the Death Star plans the Rebellion need to plan an attack but the Empire is doing its best to track down.
- Unobtainium (Avatar) – The precious mineral found on the moon of Pandora, unobtainium is the focus of a mining colony who come up against the local Na’vi. This soon becomes secondary to the other events of the film, however, making it an excellent example of a Hitchcockian MacGuffin.
- British military secrets (The 39 Steps) – Arguably the most famous of Hitchcock’s MacGuffins, the military secrets (and the meaning behind the 39 Steps) are what drive the entire film, but are ultimately not of huge consequence to the story.
These are just a few examples but there are countless more. In fact, most films contain a MacGuffin of sorts, although some are easier to spot than others. Do you have any particular favourites? If so, feel free to leave a comment.