Pop a squat class, ‘cause Professor Xander is about to drop some knowledge!
Edumacationableness! Edumacationableness here! Get your edumacationableness, fresh off the grill! Today we are going to look at a plot device that’s sole purpose is to exist for the story’s sake. What’s that? You already know what a MacGuffin is? Well aren’t you a brilliant basinet? Why don’t you go leave a comment below describing your brilliance and go visit one of your younger cousins! Mention my blog’s name to your cuz, and you’ll be getting Legos thrown at you faster than you can say MacGuffin. Anybody left? Alright! Let’s get started.
A term popularized by director Alfred Hitchcock, a MacGuffin is a plot device used to motivate the characters in the story as well as keep the plot moving. In a majority of cases, it is an object that serves no purpose to the story other than something for the characters to compete for at all costs.
Let’s look at an example from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
The MacGuffin in this film is within the title: the sorcerer’s stone (or philosopher’s stone for you Brits). It’s an object that everyone seems to want due its ability to transfigure metals to gold and create an immortality elixir. However, it serves no relevance to the story due to the fact that no one uses the object in any way, thus it contributes nothing.
The MacGuffin can be a mystical/powerful/magical object, but it can also be a valuable object such as a rare jewel or a case of money. It can also be a very mundane object. This is seen in the classic film Citizen Kane.
Throughout the course of the film, everyone was searching for the meaning/identity of Rosebud, but in fact it was a simply a sled. Value and power doesn’t necessarily have to be a factor so long as there is significance and a desire for the object.
As demonstrated by Rosebud, a trait that some MacGuffins share is the fact that the object is mysterious in nature. Everyone in the film wants the object, but most of the time it’s never revealed what its purpose is. Take The Wizard of Oz’s ruby slippers.
Dorothy is told that the shoes’ magic is incredibly powerful and should never fall in the wrong hands. However, it’s never revealed until the very last minute what they can actually do.
The object can be so mysterious, that the audience never learns what the MacGuffin is. Take the suitcase from Pulp Fiction.
This mysterious, golden glowing case is sought after by everyone in the film, though the audience never learns what was inside the case. This demonstrates how the identity of the MacGuffin is so insignificant, that it can quite literally be interchanged with any sort of object, and it wouldn’t affect the story in the slightest. Any sort of pay off as to what was in this case could have been made and it really wouldn’t have changed the message or ending of the film in a major way.
To further the insignificance of the MacGuffin, it doesn’t even have to appear in the film. Take the classic comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
King Arthur and his knights all search for the Holy Grail throughout the film, but much like Sir Not Appearing in this Film, the actual Grail is neither found, nor ever seen. Perhaps Sir Not Appearing in this Film had it all along…
MacGuffins are aplenty in the world of fiction and you’ll find an infinite variety of them. They may seem like interchangeable clichés, but they are necessary to give characters a purpose and provide them with a journey filled with obstacles to overcome.
But hey, what do I know? I’m just some guy on the Internet.
So what do you all think? Any favorite MacGuffins come to mind? Can you think of a film that doesn’t have a MacGuffin? Leave a comment and get this conversation rolling. Until next time, this is Professor Xander signing off.