One of the most commonly used plot devices out there is the MacGuffin. Popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, the term typically describes an object that is important to the characters in some way and helps move the plot forward. In Hitchcock’s original description of the term, he also mentions that the MacGuffin doesn’t actually have to be important aside from to the characters at that specific point of the story. Once it has served its purpose, it often becomes far less useful to the characters.
Hitchcock’s Description of the MacGuffin
According to the.hitchcock.zone:
Hitchcock explained the term “MacGuffin” in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University:
[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the “MacGuffin”. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.
In 1944, TIME reported Hitchcock saying, “The MacGuffin is the thing the hero chases, the thing the picture is all about … it is very necessary” before going on to explain:
By no means original with Hitchcock, the MacGuffin is a hoary British joke about a parcel-toting man on a train meeting another man, who inquires:
“What’s in the parcel?”
“What’s a MacGuffin?”
“A MacGuffin is a small animal with a long, yellow, spotted tail, used for hunting tigers in New York.”
“But there aren’t any tigers in New York.”
“Ah, but this isn’t a real MacGuffin.”
Examples of the MacGuffin in Popular Media
A MacGuffin comes in all shapes and sizes. Here are some examples of MacGuffins in popular media:
- The plans for the Death Star in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
- The Dude’s rug in The Big Lebowski (1998)
- The unopened box that ended up not being able to be delivered in Castaway (2000)
- The briefcase of cash in Fargo (1996)
- The Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
- The Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s stone in the non-American version) in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (book and movie)
What other examples can you discover in films, television and movies?