Wednesday, January 30, 2013

MacGuffin With Cheese

All right, I’m going to upset Scott a bit. Sorry, my friend. I’m going to talk about MacGuffins and why the Sankara stones in Temple of Doom are not a good MacGuffin.

You may have heard the term “MacGuffin” bandied about at the site or at other film sites or even in interviews with directors or writers. The term is generally attributed to Alfred Hitchcock, though it actually is older than that. A MacGuffin is the object that motivates the characters’ actions in a story. In a heist film, it’s the money the heroes want to steal from the bank vault. In a spy story, it’s the film the hero needs to retrieve. But there’s more to it than that.

Being a MacGuffin also implies that the object itself is actually irrelevant to the story. In other words, it doesn’t matter what the object is, all that matters is that it motivates the characters. Indeed, most MacGuffins could actually be swapped out for something else without a change to the plot. For example, in a heist film it doesn’t matter if the characters are trying to steal cash, or diamonds, or an envelope or a giant poodle; all that matters is that the protagonist is interested in the object enough to steal it.

Quentin Tarantino made great use of this idea in Pulp Fiction, when he made the film about the pursuit of a briefcase but never let the audience know what’s in the briefcase. That’s actually the ultimate MacGuffin because it doesn’t even exist, yet it’s driving the story. Another good example is “the process” in David Mamet’s Spanish Prisoner. All you know is that this is something secret and scientific, which will bring tremendous opportunities to whoever has it. It is important enough that an elaborate scheme is created to steal it. . . yet, you never even get hints about what it is.

Both of those examples prove what Hitchcock said about the MacGuffin because they motivate the plot but the fact we never even find out what they are proves that they are actually meaningless.

Interestingly, the Maltese Falcon is a MacGuffin, so is “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane, so is the nuclear weapon in Thunderball. Again, in each case, those objects motivate the characters to act but what they are is irrelevant to the plot itself. Some have suggested that the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders is a MacGuffin. I don’t agree with that, however, because the Ark eventually kills the Nazis and frees Indiana Jones, i.e. it causes plot apart from the characters’ motivation and thus cannot be a MacGuffin.

That brings me to the Sankara stones in Temple of Doom. Are these a MacGuffin? Yes, but they’re not a good one. The problem with these stones is that while the nature of the MacGuffin doesn’t matter, it is important that a MacGuffin seem important enough to motivate the characters’ actions. Thus, for example, a heist for an undisclosed amount of money makes sense to us, but a heist for $1.50 or for a wallet full of bills does not make sense to us. The Sankara stones are that $1.50.

If Indiana Jones doesn’t retrieve the stones. . . well, nothing really horrible happens. According to Jones himself, these fabled stones promise fortune and glory, and we don’t care if the villain has stones giving him vague promises of greater wealth and success. We also know Jones isn’t interested in that either, so what does he really care about retrieving the stones for a meaningless village in the middle of nowhere? In other words, this doesn’t seem like a worthy goal to motivate his actions... “kin you get my lucky rabbit foot back from them thieves?” In fact, I suspect Spielberg recognizes this because he also gave Jones a secondary motivation of freeing all the kidnapped children to motivate him. So while this is technically a MacGuffin, it’s not a good one.

So what are some of your favorite MacGuffins? And do you think the Death Star plans are a MacGuffin?

46 comments:

K said...

One of my pet peeves of movie plots is not paying off the hooks - or questions the viewer becomes invested in and will subsequently watch till the end of the story to find the answer.

Leaving the nature of the macguffin unanswered is a cute "inside baseball" trick catering to film geeks and critics but IMO it's a slap in the face and cheat for Mr. Average ticket buyer.

At least the Sankara stones were never used as unpaid off hooks for the story- even though the payoff was pretty lame.

Anonymous said...

Pulp Fiction has my favourite and yes they do give some people something to talk about. Did the case contain gold, his soul? Does it matter?

I don't mind a good MacGuffin, they are like anything in movies if it is done well then it is fine, if it is done poorly then it sucks.

As to the Death Star plans, they start out as a MacGuffin, they motivate everyone to action. But in the end they are not, because the plans themselves are not irrelevant to the plot.

The plans are used to destroy the Death Star so you cannot change them out for something else. If they don't get the Death Star plans and instead get the plans for a new Super Duper Star Destroyer then they cannot destroy the Death Star and the movie would not have a happy ending.

Scott.

tryanmax said...

RE: Death Star plans -- they are exactly as much a MacGuffin as is The Ark of the Covenant. How's that for a non-answer?

Kenn Christenson said...

How about "the bridge" in "The Bridge on the River Kwai?

Tennessee Jed said...

well you have mentioned several that seem to make all the "top 10" lists. They all tend to include Death Star Plans, and the Ark. I just happened to watch MI-2 the other day so Chrimera jumps to mind. The Genesis Project in Wrath of Khan is one of the more obvious. Certainly the Maltese Falcon is one of the more famous.

I actually disagree with your premises about their unimportance. Many items that serve as McGuffins are vitally important. It is the details that are unimportant.If you take "the process" from Spanish Prisoner, you the viewer, are permitted to fill in the details yourself. All the storyteller need do is let you know that whoever controls the process (turning water into gasoline cheaply, etc.) will become incredibly wealthy, wealthy enough to justify murder, theft, an expensive elaborate con, etc.

I don't consider McGuffins a cheap trick, but rather an often necessary plot device. Any story NEEDS to have a reason which motivates their future behavior. There are only so many dramatic plots out there to begin with. Why waste time on details, AS LONG AS the general notion of the McGuffin is plausible?

ScottDS said...

Well, I never argued that Doom was a well-written film, only that it's a better film than people think, and divorced from its predecessor and successor, it's able to stand on its own. :-)

And to be fair, the children were kidnapped from the aforementioned village when the stones were stolen - the villagers believed the stones protected them. So yeah, it's a bit like retrieving a rabbit's foot but I'd say the rescue of the children is more than relevant in this case.

As for other MacGuffins, I always go back to the microfilm in North by Northwest - that movie's a great example of a MacGuffin that could've been anything.

Then there's the Rabbit's Foot in the third Mission: Impossible film - Simon Pegg kinda explains what it is but it's not that important. (And the more I think about it, the more I realize how forgettable that film is. The first is still the best, the second one is awful, and Ghost Protocol was the most fun I had in a theater in a long time.)

ScottDS said...

K -

The problem with setups and payoffs is making it too obvious. Despite what studio execs think, movie-goers are more than capable of figuring things out on their own and if they see a character, say, learning how to shoot a bow and arrow at the beginning, they instinctively know that skill will come in handy by the end.

But I do agree with you in part - I don't think it's a sop to critics and geeks, though. I think some filmmakers just think they're "too cool for school" or that setup/payoff is an antiquated narrative idea and that their film is above such things.

rlaWTX said...

all I know is, if the MacGuffin uses the same fake, weird eggs that the McMuffin uses, I want no part of it!

AndrewPrice said...

K, In the case of Pulp Fiction, I think it worked. I think it added intrigue and it gave the audience something to really guess about. I think that worked because the movie was already kind of edgy and strange and symbolic.

That said, I agree that in most cases, it's not a good idea.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I love the argument that the briefcase contains his soul. And I love that it's plausible in that film!

On the Death Star plans, I don't think they are either. They seem to be the classic MacGuffins in the one sense, except, as you note, they do get involved in the plot. If the plans had been different, then the entire finish to the movie wouldn't have happened. To me, that's more like the Ark than some jewels in a vault.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, That is indeed a classic non-answer. LOL! Actually, I think they are similar to the Ark in that they do matter to the plot because if they had been different, then the film would have needed to end differently.

AndrewPrice said...

Kenn, Excellent example!! I never thought about it before but you're absolutely right. It could have been pretty much anything -- a rail line, a new building at he camp, a ship, etc. But it motivates each of the characters and it does so in different ways.... which is really clever writing.

Hmm. There's a good writing lesson there!

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, When people talk about MacGuffins, what they mean is that the nature of the object is irrelevant... not the object itself. Indeed, the object itself is vital in the sense that it motivates the plot. But the only property it really needs is that it motivates the characters to act.

I've seen the Top lists and I personally don't think a lot of those qualify as MacGuffins because they actually shape the plot. To me, allowing that makes the term MacGuffin meaningless as it just becomes "object of the story." I've also seen MacGuffin to have some special meaning that makes these objects more interesting.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, What I find interesting about the children is that I get the feeling they're an afterthought. Indi keeps talking about the stones and that's what he leaves the mine with. The children seem to come along all on their own after the British soldiers kill off the cultists. It's like they realized when they were done that the film lacked an emotional ending, so they added the kids as an afterthought.

North by Northwest is a good example because it again could be anything. I'll tell you what though, the more I think about it, my two favorite MacGuffins are the briefcase in Pulp Fiction and, as Kenn mentions, the bridge in Bridge on the River Kwai.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, There is a fine line between brilliant and "too cute." I think Pulp Fiction was brilliant, but other times I've seen people call attention to the MacGuffin have felt like a film school trick.

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, You don't like the Egg McMuffin? I thought everybody liked the Egg McMuffin?

By the way, if you want weird eggs, get an egg sandwich from Subway. The eggs are like rubber and they come in sheets. It's kinda creepy.

rlaWTX said...

[as long as I don't look at them, they taste ok.]

AndrewPrice said...

I'm told they are actually real egg, they just make them in a mold. I'm not sure if that's true. But I do find them to be quite tasty.

Kit said...

Another illustration of the irrelevance of a MacGuffin. During the making of one Hitchcock movie, Notorious I believe, he actually changed what the MacGuffin was at the last minute.

BIG MO said...

Would Voyager's trek (heh) back to the Federation be Trekdom's mother of all MacGuffins?

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I think Hitchcock enjoyed using MacGuffins more than anyone.

AndrewPrice said...

Big Mo, Probably. They could just as easily have been headed anywhere. The purpose of the show, which theoretically to head home, really was just to show them dealing with issues they ran across week after week.

Kit said...

Price,

I still can't remember just what the MacGuffin was in North by Northwest.
I do remember its awesome opening theme and the crop-duster scene

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Generally, it's the microfilm the bad guys want to smuggle out of the country.

K said...

Andrew: I think that worked because the movie was already kind of edgy and strange and symbolic.

I spent quite a few hours of my youth pondering the meaning of Kubrick's strange and symbolic 2001. Later to find out "Don't mean s*it". A trend in Japanese anime following the success of NG Evangelion is to produce obscure edgy and symbolic plots and never pay them off - all the better for Otaku to spend the night arguing about their "deep meaning".

Subsequently, my tolerance for such "techniques" is pretty low these days - bad writing and pseudo philosophy = bad film.

K said...

Scott DS:The problem with setups and payoffs is making it too obvious.

Yes, if you obviously telegraph what's going to happen then your writing has a flaw. OTOH, if the expectations of your obvious setup are creatively sabotaged, then the reader will often be delighted by it.

AndrewPrice said...

K, That's actually a problem I have with all of Kubrick's films. He floods them with symbolism and quirky moments that suggest meaning, but when you really look at what he's put together, there's nothing there.

I don't mind leaving the audience guessing when it's something you really could debate and could solve. I don't like it when the filmmaker just doesn't seem to know how to end the film.

AndrewPrice said...

K & Scott, I agree with that. Twisting the expected is always appreciated.

tryanmax said...

Okay, I've clearly had this in the back of my mind all day. Besides those named in the article, some of my favorite MacGuffins include:

Pee Wee's bike - PW's Big Adventure

Rabbit's Foot - M:I 3 (I think the film is memorable, thanks to Phillip Seymour Hoffman)

Giant diamond - Snatch

The One Ring - LOTR

Necronimicon - Army of Darkness

The Idea - Inception (sort of a MacGuffin in reverse)

Golden Idol - from the begining of Raiders of the Lost Ark (a mini-MacGuffin)

Le Cœur de la Mer - Titanic (what?)

Shrink Ray - Despicable Me

Ringo's Ring - HELP! ("With a ring like that, I could--dare I say it?--rule the world!")

Leeloo - The Fifth Element

The Water Engine - from David Mamet's play of the same name. I know there was a TV adaption of this, but I'm only able to find pieces of it on YouTube. I haven't seen The Spanish Prisoner but I suspect it is a refinement of the same story.

BTW, I've never seen The Maltese Falcon to my deep and abiding shame.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I definitely recommend The Spanish Prisoner.

I've never thought of Leeloo as a MacGuffin. I would have named the stones (the other four elements).

I do like the golden idol a lot in Raiders.

I have no comment on you not seeing The Maltese Falcon.

Individualist said...

OK here is a question.

If we were all devpout Hindu's who live in India would we still feel that the Sankara Stones were irrelevant to the plot.

Likewise if we had as little understanding as to what the Ark of the Covenant is as westerners do of Sankara stones would the Ark still seem important.

After all the Stones were required to perform the sacrifice and Shiva had a direct divine interest in them and could have been guiding Indiana Jones there all the time.

Just wondering how much the cultural aspectds effect the answer to the question.

T-Rav said...

Okay, we get it! You don't like Temple of Doom! Sheesh....

The other two are still good though, right?

K said...

Who doesn't like TOD? I love it. Kate Capshaw was hot. Not only that but casting her in the 60s cliche "dumb blonde who hilariously screws up everything she touches" role must still really PO gender feminists the world over. A classic.

AndrewPrice said...

Rumors of my hating Temple of Doom have been somewhat exaggerated. I try to like it. :/

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, That's a good question. I suspect culture matters a good deal to whether or not something is perceived as valuable or worthwhile. It wouldn't really make it any more or less relevant to the story, but it could change the perception of the motivation.

MadMup said...

Last week's 30 Rock had a character named Mr. MacGuffin, and as soon as he was named I knew he was meant to be a distraction from the main point.

Doesn't really fit with the discussion here, I know, but I loved that they threw it in :)

Voz said...

The figure skates case in Ronin. Great movie, great car chases, great action, great macguffin.

Tennessee Jed said...

Heart of the Ocean - actually probably is a little mimi-mcguffin

PikeBishop said...

I don't know if this counts but I tend to think most movies about politics use maguffins, especially ones dealing with the legislative process.

People debate and argue, showing their good and bad sides over a bill about raising water millage rates, as if it were the Magna Carta.

Just my observation.

PikeBishop said...

So is Penelope the original Maguffin?

Damn, she must have been AMAZING in the sack. ;-)

AndrewPrice said...

MadMup, That's pretty funny and quite clever actually.

AndrewPrice said...

Voz, I'm a huge fan of Ronin. That's easily in my Top 10. I find the movie just amazingly well written and well acted on every level.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Yep!

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, That's a great point. Political movies aren't really about the political issue, they are about the relationships of the characters and their actions for or against each other, and the issue can usually be anything pretty much.

Voz said...

I picked up Ronin from Wal-Mart when it was around 8 bucks. It was one of my first DVDs that I bought and I've enjoyed it ever since.

AndrewPrice said...

Voz, I don't remember when I first got it, but I've seen it dozens of times by now. It's just a great movie in my book.

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