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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 as to why it is considered so important. 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. However, a MacGuffin can sometimes take a more abstract form, such as money, victory, glory, survival, power, love, or even something that is entirely unexplained, as long as it strongly motivates key characters within the structure of the plot.
The MacGuffin technique is common in films, especially thrillers. Usually the MacGuffin is the central focus of the film in the first act, and then declines in importance as the struggles and motivations of characters play out. It may come back into play at the climax of the story, but sometimes the MacGuffin is actually forgotten by the end of the story. Multiple MacGuffins are sometimes derisively referred to as plot coupons.
History and use
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 The Kalevala. The specific term "MacGuffin" appears to have originated in 20th-century filmmaking, and was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s, but the concept pre-dates the term in film as well as in literature. For example the World War I–era actress Pearl White used the term weenie to identify whatever physical 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.
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. 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".
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 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.
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.
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". 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". 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".
For filmmaker and drama writing theorist Yves Lavandier, 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, a MacGuffin denotes any justification for the external conflictual premises of a work.
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", which could refer to nearly anything at all in a story, given that audience-member attention occurs at the individual level and is not reliably predictable.
Examples in film include the meaning of rosebud in Citizen Kane (1941), the titular Maltese Falcon, the Rabbit's Foot in Mission: Impossible III (2006), the briefcases in Pulp Fiction and Ronin, the Letters of Transit in Casablanca, the Heart of the Ocean necklace in Titanic, and the mineral unobtainium in Avatar (2009).
Examples in television include the Rambaldi device in Alias, the orb in The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., and Krieger waves in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "A Matter of Perspective". Carl Macek created protoculture as a MacGuffin to unite the storylines of the three separate anime that comprised Robotech.
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."
- Alien space bats
- Big Dumb Object
- Chekhov's gun
- Deus Ex Machina
- The Double McGuffin
- The Sampo
- Red herring
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- Marshall Deutelbaum, Leland A. Poague (2009) A Hitchcock reader p.114. John Wiley and Sons.
- According to the Oxford English Dictionary.
- François Truffaut. Hitchcock
- Gottlieb, Sidney (2002). Framing Hitchcock: Selected essays from the Hitchcock annual. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. p. 48. ISBN 0-8143-3061-4.
- Frequently asked questions on Hitchcock
- Star Wars (1977) Region 2 DVD release (2004). Audio commentary, 00:14:44 - 00:15:00.
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- Keys to the Kingdom, a February 2008 Vanity Fair article
- Excerpts from Yves Lavandier's Writing Drama
- Yves Lavandier's Writing Drama
- MacGuffin, Princeton University, WordNet 3.0
- Greatest Films: Citizen Kane (1941)
- What the MacGuffin? Abrams Loses Way in Mission
- Documents that Changed the World: The ‘Casablanca’ letters of transit | UW Today
- The Quietus List of Macguffins
- Editorial Review of "Alias - The Complete First Season" at Amazon.com
- Review of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. at DVDVerdict.com
- A Matter of Perspective (1990) Region 1 DVD release (2002). Season 3, Disk 4.
- "The Incredible But True Story Of Krieger Waves". DaveKrieger.net. November 5, 2005.
- Yang, Jeff (28 June 2011). "The 'Robotech' master". The San Francisco Chronicle.
- The Independent, A Week in Books: An ingenious comedy-thriller, packed with clever gags by Boyd Tonkin, 24 June 2005
- The Independent, 54 By Wu Ming reviewed by David Isaacson, 11 July 2005
- The Hartford Advocate reviews 'Spook Country'
- "Steven Spielberg admits he had reservations about 'Indiana Jones 4,' but still defends worst scene in 'Indiana Jones 4'". Entertainment Weekly. 26 October 2011.