MacGuffin

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In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot. The most common type of MacGuffin is an object, place or person; other types include money, victory, glory, survival, power, love, or other things unexplained.

The MacGuffin technique is common in films, especially thrillers. Usually the MacGuffin is the central focus of the film in the first act, and thereafter declines in importance. It may re-appear at the climax of the story, but sometimes is actually forgotten by the end of the story. Multiple MacGuffins are sometimes derisively identified as plot coupons.[1][2]

History and use[edit]

Objects that serve the plot function of MacGuffins have had long use in storytelling; for example, the Sampo in a segment of the Finnish epic Kalevala. The name "MacGuffin" appears to originate in 20th-century filmmaking, and was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s; but the concept pre-dates the term. The World War I–era actress Pearl White used weenie to identify whatever object (a roll of film, a rare coin, expensive diamonds, etc.) impelled the heroes and villains to pursue each other through the convoluted plots of The Perils of Pauline and the other silent film serials in which she starred.[3]

Alfred Hitchcock[edit]

The director and producer Alfred Hitchcock popularized both the term "MacGuffin" and the technique, with his 1935 film The 39 Steps, an early example of the concept.[4] Hitchcock explained the term "MacGuffin" in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University: "[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin'. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers".[5]

Interviewed in 1966 by François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock illustrated the term "MacGuffin" with this story:[6][7]

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on 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 that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.

Hitchcock related this anecdote in a television interview for Richard Schickel's documentary The Men Who Made the Movies and for Dick Cavett's interview. According to author Ken Mogg, screenwriter Angus MacPhail, a friend of Hitchcock, may have originally coined the term.[8]

George Lucas[edit]

On the commentary soundtrack to the 2004 DVD release of Star Wars, writer and director George Lucas describes R2-D2 as "the main driving force of the movie … what you say in the movie business is the MacGuffin … the object of everybody's search".[9] In TV interviews, Hitchcock defined a MacGuffin as the object around which the plot revolves, but as to what that object specifically is, he declared, "the audience don't care".[10] Lucas, on the other hand, believes that the MacGuffin should be powerful and that "the audience should care about it almost as much as the duelling heroes and villains on-screen".[11]

Yves Lavandier[edit]

For filmmaker and drama writing theorist Yves Lavandier,[12] in the strictly Hitchcockian sense, a MacGuffin is a secret that motivates the villains. North by Northwest's supposed MacGuffin is nothing that motivates the protagonist; Roger Thornhill's objective is to extricate himself from the predicament that the mistaken identity has created, and what matters to Vandamm and the CIA is of little importance to Thornhill. A similar lack of motivating power applies to the alleged MacGuffins of The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps, and Foreign Correspondent. In a broader sense, says Lavandier,[13] a MacGuffin denotes any justification for the external conflictual premises of a work.

Broader use[edit]

Some dictionary definitions are even more vague and generalized. For example, Princeton's WordNet defines a MacGuffin as simply "a plot element that catches the viewers' attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction",[14] which could refer to nearly anything at all in a story, given that audience-member attention is not reliably predictable.

Examples[edit]

Examples in film include the meaning of rosebud in Citizen Kane (1941),[15] the titular Maltese Falcon, the Rabbit's Foot in Mission: Impossible III (2006),[16] the briefcases in Pulp Fiction and several Coen brothers films, the Letters of Transit in Casablanca,[17] the Heart of the Ocean necklace in Titanic,[18] and the mineral unobtainium in Avatar (2009).[19]

Examples in television include the Rambaldi device in Alias,[20] the orb in The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.,[21] and Krieger Waves in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "A Matter of Perspective".[22][23] Carl Macek created protoculture as a MacGuffin to unite the storylines of the three separate anime that comprised Robotech.[24]

Examples in literature include the television set in Wu Ming's novel 54,[25][26] and the container in William Gibson's Spook Country.[27]

In discussing the mixed critical reception of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Steven Spielberg said, "I sympathize with people who didn't like the MacGuffin (the crystal skull) because I never liked the MacGuffin."[28]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Lowe, Nick (July 1986). "The Well-Tempered Plot Device". Ansible (Berkshire, England) (46). ISSN 0265-9816. Retrieved January 2, 2014. 
  2. ^ Sterling, Bruce (June 18, 2009). "Turkey City Lexicon – A Primer for SF Workshops". Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Retrieved January 2, 2014. 
  3. ^ Lahue, Kalton C. (1968). Bound and Gagged: The Story of the Silent Serials. Oak Tree Pubs. ISBN 978-0-498-06762-4. 
  4. ^ Marshall Deutelbaum; Leland A. Poague (2009). A Hitchcock reader. John Wiley and Sons. p. 114. 
  5. ^ According to the Oxford English Dictionary.[clarification needed]
  6. ^ François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock (1967). Hitchcock. Helen G. Scott. 
  7. ^ Gottlieb, Sidney; Brookhouse, Christopher (2002). Framing Hitchcock: Selected essays from the Hitchcock annual. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. pp. 47–48. ISBN 0-8143-3061-4. "
    Hitchcock's term the "MacGuffin" helped him to assert that his films were in fact not what they on the surface seemed to be about. As he explained to Truffaut:
    You may be wondering where the term originated. 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 that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all."
     
  8. ^ Ken Mogg (May 12, 2006). "Frequently asked questions on Hitchcock". Labyrinth.net.au/~muffin/. Retrieved January 2, 2014. 
  9. ^ Star Wars (1977) Region 2 DVD release (2004). Audio commentary, 00:14:44 – 00:15:00.
  10. ^ "The 39 Steps – Film (Movie) Plot and Review". Filmreference.com. Retrieved January 2, 2014. 
  11. ^ "Keys to the Kingdom". Vanity Fair. February 2008. Retrieved January 2, 2014. 
  12. ^ "Excerpts from Yves Lavandier's Writing Drama". Clown-enfant.com. Retrieved January 2, 2014. 
  13. ^ "Yves Lavandier's Writing Drama". Clown-enfant.com. Retrieved 2014-01-02. [not in citation given]
  14. ^ MacGuffin, Princeton University, WordNet 3.0[clarification needed]
  15. ^ "Greatest Films: Citizen Kane (1941)". Filmsite.org. Retrieved January 2, 2014. 
  16. ^ Andrew Sarris (May 14, 2006). "What the MacGuffin? Abrams Loses Way in Mission". The New York Observer. Archived from the original on November 6, 2007. 
  17. ^ Peter Kelley (March 26, 2013). "Documents that Changed the World: The ‘Casablanca’ letters of transit". University of Washington. Retrieved January 2, 2014. 
  18. ^ Corliss, Richard (April 4, 2012). "TIME's Titanic 3D Review | TIME.com". Time. Retrieved January 2, 2014. 
  19. ^ David Bax (February 9, 2010). "The Quietus List of Macguffins". Thequietus.com. Retrieved January 2, 2014. 
  20. ^ Mark Englehart (ed.). "Editorial Review of "Alias – The Complete First Season"". Amazon.com. ASIN B00005JLF1. Retrieved January 2, 2014. 
  21. ^ "Review of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.". DVDVerdict.com. 2006. Retrieved January 2, 2014. 
  22. ^ A Matter of Perspective (1990) Region 1 DVD release (2002). Season 3, Disk 4.
  23. ^ "The Incredible But True Story of Krieger Waves". DaveKrieger.net. November 5, 2005. Retrieved January 2, 2014. 
  24. ^ Yang, Jeff (June 28, 2011). "The 'Robotech' master". The San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved January 2, 2014. 
  25. ^ Boyd Tonkin (June 24, 2005). "A Week in Books: An ingenious comedy-thriller, packed with clever gags". The Independent. Retrieved January 2, 2014. 
  26. ^ David Isaacson (July 11, 2005). "54 By Wu Ming reviewed by David Isaacson". The Independent. Retrieved January 2, 2014. 
  27. ^ Drew Taylor (October 3, 2007). "William Gibson goes cyber-spying? Who's the spy, and who is being spied on?". The Hartford Advocate. Archived from the original on February 4, 2009. "Hitch said a MacGuffin was an object—a briefcase, a Maltese falcon—that drives the plot forward without you ever having to know what it is." 
  28. ^ "Steven Spielberg admits he had reservations about 'Indiana Jones 4,' but still defends worst scene in 'Indiana Jones 4'". Entertainment Weekly. October 26, 2011. Retrieved January 2, 2014. 

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