Ever watch a film where heroes and villains clash over the fate of a mysterious object of some grave importance, yet that all-powerful item usually ends up not meaning anything to most of the story? That’s because it’s a MacGuffin.
What’s a MacGuffin? It’s nothing yet everything at the same time.
MacGuffins are mysterious items that put a plot into motion. Most often, these are highly valuable items, either because of their rarity or because of the power they hold. However, the most important piece of a MacGuffin’s definition is that these awe-inspiring items do nothing in the narrative. Should a potential MacGuffin, such as the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, eventually play a role that changes the course of the narrative, like melting Nazi faces, it becomes a plot device and not a MacGuffin.
While the term “MacGuffin” was solidified by Alfred Hitchcock, whose movies often revolved around such items, the idea was in place in storytelling long before the director’s influential career. However, MacGuffins have always been a bit of magical rubbish.
Sure, this may take some of mystery out of MacGuffins, but these awesome items can still be a vital part of an excellent film, novel, television show, or comic book. Understanding what can make a MacGuffin awesome is the key to not only creating a powerful narrative motivated by such an empty vessel, but also understanding what makes these narrative devices so fun in the first place.
Understanding the (Real) Value of a MacGuffin
The unfortunate truth about understanding MacGuffins is that once you know what they are, you can’t unsee them when watching new movies. The best MacGuffins will capture the imagination or viewers or readers enough that they are quickly drawn into the story, but they do not have a continued importance placed on them. Films like the Indiana Jones Series are strong because of the fantastic characters and thrilling action sequences, not because the artifacts being chased after are wildly imaginative.
You could say that every magical instance and mysterious creature encountered during the run of the television series Lostwas a MacGuffin, since none of them played an important role in the conclusion of the series. Where the show’s narrative went wrong was leading viewers to believe that these elements had a greater importance than they truly did. In fact, it was often the tantalizing mysteries that were so often put in focus by each episode that got viewers to come back week after week. When the creators gave no payoff to those mysteries and told viewers they were unimportant all along, the idea of highly valued pieces of the show as a whole being nothing more than MacGuffins was a cruel turnabout that devalued much of the show’s narrative structure.
But that highlights the beauty of a well-used MacGuffin. These pieces put the story in motion and help to drive it along at key moments, but they are not ascribed much more important in the art of storytelling than “plot motivator.” Audiences pick up on that instinctually throughout the story and place narrative important on the fate of characters and the resolution of story arcs instead of the fate of the MacGuffin itself. It’s the beauty of our innate storytelling capabilities as human beings.
Storytelling’s Greatest MacGuffins
You may not realize this, but cinema is stuffed to the brim with MacGuffin, with some of the best films ever made centered on these strange and ultimately unimportant little items.
- The Maltese Falcon – The Maltese Falcon Statue – Quite simply this is THE Macguffin. A black statute of a bird that is desired by everyone. Not even the people chasing it fully understand its value. After all, it’s “the stuff that dreams are made of.”
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – The Sorceror’s Stone – Said to create a life-extending elixir, it is searched after by Voldemort. In the end, this red stone doesn’t actually do anything in the story besides insight the action.
- The Pirates of the Caribbean Series – Treasure– Every entry has a different one. While some take a larger part in the narrative than others, such as the cursed treasure in the first installment, they are all some sort of prized treasure that puts everyone at odds and on the hunt.
- North by Northwest – Government Secrets – What are they? What can they do? All we know is that the bad guys can use them to do bad things and poor Cary Grant is caught up in the middle of a spectacular adventure because of these secrets.
- Titanic – The Heart of the Ocean – We wouldn’t have to sit through delusional old Rose’s silly love story if it wasn’t for her connection to the giant diamond. In fact, it’s so unimportant it gets chucked into the sea by the end. Thanks a lot, Rose.
- Pulp Fiction – The Briefcase – All that’s known is that whatever is inside is extremely valuable, leading to some serious speech making and a lot of violence. Is it gold? Marcellus Wallace’s soul? Not even Quentin Tarantino knows or cares.
- Mission Impossible III – The Rabbit’s Foot – The most commonly asked question in this Tom Cruise spy thriller is “where is the rabbit’s foot?” and not “what is the rabbit’s foot?” That’s too bad, because we never find out what it is or what it does. It doesn’t matter, the movie is awesome.
- Indiana Jones Series – Artifacts – Every entry has one. While each treasure eventually plays a major role in the finale (face melting, hand burning, life saving, and alien resurrecting) they are mostly MacGuffin’s that insight Indy’s quests until the end.
- Avatar – Unobtanium – With a name so stupid it could be nothing but a MacGuffin, this preposterous element is the entire cause of Dances With Wolves in space.
- The Big Lebowski – The Rug – You may think it’s the briefcase with potentially $1 million inside, but it’s actually The Dude’s rug that starts the entire story. It really tied the room together. Plus, “All The Dude ever wanted was his rug back.”
- The Hobbit – The Arkenstone – Yes, it’s the sign of the true king under the mountain, but it’s really just a big shiny thing. Recovering it is cause enough to fight the giant dragon Smaug and its theft by Bilbo really causes things to go nuts.
- Kingdom Hearts – Kingdom Hearts – A magical realm filled with untold power, which or the most part goes completely unseen. All we know is that the villains want to harness it for darkness and the heroes want to protect it for the light.
- Justice League – The Anti-Life Equation – This seemingly impossible to understand equation is enough to enslave all known life in the universe, so naturally Darkseid wants it. While it has been explained in more detail over the years, it’s just a mind-boggling MacGuffin meant to put the villain on a terrifying quest.
- Marvel Cinematic Universe – Lots and Lots – Most of the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are driven by some form of MacGuffin, some of which become active plot devices. The Infinity Stone in Guardians of the Galaxy, the new element in Iron Man 2, and the Teseract in Captain America are all MacGuffins that succeed to various degrees.
Finding Balance in Your Story’s True Meaning
Ultimately, while MacGuffins can be incredibly cool and spark the wildest imaginations of audience members, they are far from vital in great storytelling. Most often, MacGuffins are one of the least memorable parts of a story, as the action and characters must take precedence in order to truly connect with audiences. However, every creator has a different outlook on the importance of a MacGuffin.
Hitchcock always viewed the MacGuffin as generally unimportant, saying “The main thing I’ve learned over the years is that the MacGuffin is nothing.” And that is reflected in his works, with the ultimate meaning of these items often going unexplained or being completely unimportant to the story as a whole. George Lucas, on the other hand, has said that audiences should care about MacGuffins just as much as they care about any other element of the story. That’s reflected in his works, too, with the director describing R2-D2 as a walking MacGuffin, especially in the first Star Wars. Whether that takes these items out of the realm of MacGuffin in his works is up to each viewer, but it makes a clear distinction between these two creators’ works.
Ultimately, MacGuffins are about capturing the imaginations of audiences in order to suck them into a larger narrative. Think of them as the lure on a fishing line. Their quality is determined by the skilled of the creator working that line. The best MacGuffins of all will make us want to be caught over and over again.