Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
- This article is about the plot device. For the block cipher, see MacGuffin (cipher).
A MacGuffin (sometimes spelt McGuffin or Magoffin) is a plot device that holds no meaning or purpose of its own except to motivate the characters and advance the story. The device is usually used in films, especially thrillers. The term "MacGuffin" was invented by Alfred Hitchcock, who made extensive use of the device in his films. It is still mostly used in specific reference to Hitchcock's plots, rather than as a general term for similar narrative conveniences in unrelated stories.
In Hitchcock's films
One example of a MacGuffin in Hitchcock's movies is the uranium hidden in wine bottles in Notorious: it is the reason the story takes place, but it otherwise means nothing. The story could just as easily have used diamonds (which were in fact proposed as an alternative MacGuffin during production ), gold or extraordinary rare wine as the plot device.
One of Hitchcock's most memorable MacGuffins is the one used in North by Northwest. In this movie, the MacGuffin is the character of "George Kaplan", who is being chased by the enemy spies. Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for Kaplan by the spies, and so they chase him instead. Thornhill spends the course of the movie trying to find George Kaplan himself without realizing that George Kaplan does not even exist. Both the hero and the villains of the movie are chasing nothing more than a puff of hot air, making this a true MacGuffin.
- 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.
(In some versions this story ends differently: "The first man says, 'But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,' and the other one answers 'That shows how effective it is!'")
Earlier and similar plot devices
Although Hitchcock coined the term MacGuffin, many similar plot devices predate his use. One particularly famous early example of a MacGuffin is the titular statuette in The Maltese Falcon, which could just as easily have been any other mythical treasure.
Even this movie, however, is a relatively recent example of this particular form of plot device. Plot devices like the MacGuffin are used in stories dating back at least to Desdemona's handkerchief in William Shakespeare's play Othello, and possibly further back still. Other MacGuffins prior to the invention of the term include Pip's "great expectations" of future wealth in the Charles Dickens book of that title.
Later uses and references
Just as Hitchcock's films influenced later filmmaking, the MacGuffin also diffused in name, and in concept, into popular culture. For instance, the briefcase in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction is a MacGuffin (and a nod to Kiss Me Deadly). The contents are never shown; that section of the plot is not about the briefcase so much as what happens because of it. A similar homage is the surreal, glowing car trunk in Repo Man. In the film Ronin, 'the case' is also a classic MacGuffin, as is the FedEx package that Tom Hanks holds onto throughout his various adventures on the deserted island in Cast Away and finally manages to deliver to the recipient in the very end. An explicit MacGuffin reference comes from an episode of the 'Bionic Six ' cartoon of the late 1980s in which the 'MacGuffin Ray', a dummy weapon, is used exclusively to lure the evil Dr. Scarab out of hiding.
Scriptwriters - and writers in general - seem to love to use the term and point out when MacGuffins have been employed. In an explicit nod to Hitchcock, Paul Muldoon's 1990 long poem Madoc: A Mystery includes a shadowy, conspiratorial character named MacGuffin or MacGoffin.
In 1979, a children's movie was released titled The Double McGuffin , directed by Joe Camp , which - as the title suggests - has the action propelled forward by not one, but two MacGuffins. And an episode of the television series Due South which featured an obvious MacGuffin (Chicago Holiday) also featured a character named Mrs. McGuffin.
The television series 24 regularly uses the MacGuffin. While every season has focused on a terrorist plot, each season begins with the government agents closing in on one group of suspects, only to learn they have been hired by others. Each season has had several levels of villain involved.
Good Eats episode The Remains of the Bird utilizes a fictive documentary filmmaker (Blair MacGuffin) to drive its plot along.
Slavoj Zizek, a Hitchcock aficionado, has used the MacGuffin as an illustration of the structural principles of psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan in his book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock). In 2003 Zizek compared the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to a MacGuffin.
- Francois Truffaut. Hitchcock. ISBN 0671604295.
- Slavoj Zizek. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock). ISBN 0860915921.
- Alton Brown. Good Eats. Episode EA1C14.
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