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?