Geek culture concerns itself with niche media a lot – some might say it is now the sole definition of “geek” anymore. Within all that fantastic fiction, there’s certain literary devices that get repeated over and over. Which leads to a lot of bickering when fans of said media congregate to discuss the details of their favorite franchise.
It is ever thus with the MacGuffin, an exotic species of plot device which is instantly memorable once you hear about it, but forever harder to identify the more you know about it. In brief, a MacGuffin is:
A plot device in a story
The focal point of conflict between characters
Something which both the protagonist and antagonist struggles to possess
Something that would be considered tremendously rare or valuable in the story’s universe
So far, we have the above as a working definition of an “object of desire.” Now on top of that, a MacGuffin is also:
Interchangeable with similar objects
Insignificant to the actual events of the story
Gets very little exposition on its own
That’s the point where a lot of fans get confused. It doesn’t help matters that half the expert sources online get details wrong too.
Everyone says Alfred Hitchcock coined the term “MacGuffin”
He didn’t. The directorial master of horror and suspense just popularized it. He borrowed the word “MacGuffin” from an old Scottish joke which I won’t bother repeating here because it’s either terrible or else I’m not versed enough in old Scottish culture to understand it. Instead, the application of the word MacGuffin is credited to screenwriter Angus MacPhail, who worked with Hitchcock.
Hitchcock would later use the term in discussing his movies. He was fond of MacGuffins, especially in his spy movies. The central conflict in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) revolves around a statue with a load of microfilm hidden inside, presumably meant to be passed from one spy to another.
What is on the microfilm? This is never explained! It doesn’t matter to the story; all you have to know is that a spy wants it and another intelligence agency wants to keep it from him. Whenever you’re dealing with a MacGuffin, you’re just looking at any excuse to get the plot rolling. A MacGuffin’s details are inherently unimportant to know.
This does not necessarily make a MacGuffin a sign of bad writing. Some of our most prized works of fiction make liberal use of MacGuffins. The Maltese Falcon (1941), an oft-cited correct example, is a fantastically valuable statue which could have been a suitcase full of money, the Mona Lisa, or the Philosopher’s Stone without affecting the plot at all. As we will show, MacGuffins are easily distinguished by the rules of writing, with a few edge cases. It’s just one of those things that are easier to define with examples.
True MacGuffin: The glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction
Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) is fortunately a work in recent memory (God knows, memed to death on the Internet to hell and back), which also happens to be one of the boldest and most interesting uses of a MacGuffin. Throughout the movie, we know that crime boss Mr. Wallace desperately wants the contents of a briefcase and is willing to send murderous henchmen to get it.
Tarantino himself reports that he had no particular item in mind for the contents of the case. We have very little to go on, as the case is opened only twice for characters to view (but not the audience); both times the characters only vaguely express admiration for the contents without giving us a clue as to what it is. Tarantino puts a light in the case just to mess with us.
Not a MacGuffin: The Ring of Power in Lord of the Rings
Our woes begin when Internet fandom discussions start applying the definition of a MacGuffin to any old plot device. The Ring of Power in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings universe does not follow MacGuffin protocols:
It is not at all interchangeable with other artifacts like the Phial of Galadriel or Andúril
It is highly significant to the events of the story, because the One Ring has a will of its own and visibly affects all who hold it or even gaze upon it
It gets tons of exposition; this is Tolkien, who writes 30-page poems about a sword, we’re talking about
Furthermore the central conflict is not so much opposing forces fighting for its possession, but the main protagonists’ quest to destroy it. Their main antagonist, Sauron, wants the One Ring to exist in Middle Earth because it serves as an instrument which creates conflict and divides the people who would unite against him.
MacGuffin: The titular treasure in One Piece
In the epic-length manga and anime of One Piece, all we basically know about the treasure is that acquiring it makes you “King of the Pirates” and that it was stashed somewhere on the world. Characters actually turn down information about the treasure in-universe because they don’t want it spoiled! The actual treasure is barely mentioned in the average episode. At some 800+ episodes with the author supposing it will end in a few more years, it’s anybody’s guess as to how the Big Reveal will go.
That’s it. The main characters are on a quest for buried treasure whose contents are a complete mystery. The actual treasure itself has little relevance to the whole story, which is after all more about the journey than the prize. Pirate treasures are one of the standard breeds of MacGuffin throughout media history, especially in adventure stories. The original pirate story, Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island, has exactly the same kind of MacGuffin quest with Captain Flint’s buried treasure.
Not a MacGuffin: The titular notebook in Death Note
Here again, we have a magical artifact which certainly gives the owner a hell of a lot of power, and is coveted by certain characters, but is not a MacGuffin. The Death Note itself is such a unique artifact that its very existence confronts us with deep philosophical questions. Furthermore, we get the Death Note explained so thoroughly as to leave no question as to why certain people would want to use it.
It is not interchangeable with any other random plot device
The Death Note is used extensively throughout the story and affects whole chunks of the plot in the most dramatic way possible
You want exposition, we get the rules of the artifact spelled out for us
Furthermore, the central conflicts of Death Note do not fall along the lines of a struggle to possess the artifact itself. It is a supernatural murder weapon, after all, which most decent people would probably burn on discovery. Instead, Death Note is a detective story where the chief protagonists barely ever discover the existence of the artifact itself.
Typically a MacGuffin: Most quest items in video games
Video games are absolutely lousy with MacGuffins. Here is the big shiny thing: go get it! Princess Peach in the Mario universe is a typical example of a hostage MacGuffin, as is any damsel in distress who needs rescuing in any game from Ghosts & Goblins to Dragon’s Lair. RPGs are famous for MacGuffins, such as the Amulet of Yendor in Nethack.
Most fetch quests are also little more than intermediate MacGuffins, which we call “plot coupons.” Before you can get the gate key to advance through the gate to the next adventure town, the guard needs you to fetch 20 bear asses. One common trick is to have a witch making a potion and the witch needs some arcane ingredient to complete it, like the witch by the magic shop who needs a mushroom for her stew in SNES Zelda: A Link To the Past.
Again, if you can actually equip and use the item, it’s not a MacGuffin. It has to be an interchangeable item with no known properties except that somebody needs it.
Up for Debate: The Indiana Jones artifacts
Here’s where it gets tricky: In the four Indiana Jones movies, we have the Arc of the Covenant, the Sankara Stones, the Holy Grail, and the Crystal Skull. Each of them are plot devices which move the plot forward. Each of them are coveted by both protagonist and antagonist alike.
In the original Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the Ark of the Covenant might as well be a MacGuffin. We never see it used as intended, if you count that the events of opening the Ark could be interpreted as God’s punishment for desecrating His relic. All we get is some mumbo-jumbo about an army that marches behind the Ark can’t fall, which gets proven false anyway because it didn’t seem to help the Nazis much.
In Temple of Doom (1984), the sacred rocks are mostly MacGuffins, but do take some active role because their magic powers are used by the villain. They even heat up at an inopportune time, as if rejecting their captor.
In The Last Crusade (1989), the Holy Grail takes a turn at not being a MacGuffin. For once we get it clearly explained that it grants healing and eternal life. That effect even becomes important to the story as events unfold. While we may have no choice but to shrug at magic boxes and rocks, every one of us can understand that the Holy Grail would be handy to have around. God’s own health care plan, just add water!
In Crystal Skull (2008), we’re back to MacGuffins again. The title artifact might as well be a Maltese falcon for all the active effect it has on the story, until the ending. So egregiously stupid that it made my list of endings we need to get over and move on, the ending could have been any cosmic light show that showed the artifacts are in the right place and happy again.
The thing is, holy relic artifacts always have a MacGuffin nature to them without being strictly so. You you could have replaced the Ark of the Covenant with the Shroud of Turin. You could not have replaced the Holy Grail with the Veil of Veronica. At the same time, the definition of a MacGuffin keeps accumulating an add-on set it never started with, like this next guy who’s going to insist that a MacGuffin must fade from the story until it’s ultimately discarded at the end.
Opinions may differ…
Fans seem to argue about MacGuffins a lot. Sometimes even the creators like George Lucas get it wrong, like when he claimed he wanted to make his MacGuffins matter to the audience, at which point they cease being MacGuffins and become just plain old plot devices. Even the best video I could find on the topic disagrees with some of the points on my list, but what can you do? Close enough.
We put up with a whole lot of “close enough” in geek culture. This might turn out to be one more word that got away from us, but I’m trying my damnedest.