In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin) is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself. The term was originated by Angus MacPhail for film, adopted by Alfred Hitchcock, and later extended to a similar device in other fiction.
The MacGuffin technique is common in films, especially thrillers. Usually, the MacGuffin is revealed in the first act, and thereafter declines in importance. It can reappear at the climax of the story but may actually be forgotten by the end of the story. Multiple MacGuffins are sometimes derisively identified as plot coupons.
The use of a MacGuffin as a plot device predates the name MacGuffin. The Holy Grail of Arthurian Legend has been cited as an early example of a MacGuffin. The Holy Grail is the desired object that is essential to initiate and advance the plot. The final disposition of the Grail is never revealed, suggesting that the object is not of significance in itself.
The World-War-I-era actress Pearl White used the term "weenie" to identify whatever object (a roll of film, a rare coin, expensive diamonds, etc.) impelled the heroes, and often the villains as well, to pursue each other through the convoluted plots of The Perils of Pauline and the other silent film serials in which she starred. In the 1930 detective novel The Maltese Falcon, a small statuette provides both the book's title and its motive for intrigue.
The name MacGuffin was coined by the English screenwriter Angus MacPhail and was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s.
Director and producer Alfred Hitchcock popularized the term MacGuffin and the technique with his 1935 film The 39 Steps, an early example of the concept. Hitchcock explained the term MacGuffin in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University in New York City:
It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, 'What's that package up there in the baggage rack?' And the other answers, 'Oh, that's a MacGuffin'. The first one asks, 'What's a MacGuffin?' 'Well,' the other man says, 'it's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.' The first man says, 'But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,' and the other one answers, 'Well then, that's no MacGuffin!' So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.
Hitchcock's term MacGuffin helped him to assert that his films were in fact not what they appeared to be on the surface. Hitchcock also related this anecdote in a television interview for Richard Schickel's documentary The Men Who Made the Movies, and in an interview with Dick Cavett.
In contrast to Hitchcock's view of a MacGuffin as an object around which the plot revolves but about which the audience does not care, George Lucas believes that "the audience should care about it almost as much as the dueling heroes and villains on-screen." Lucas describes R2-D2 as the MacGuffin of the original Star Wars film, and said that the titular MacGuffin in Raiders of the Lost Ark was an excellent example as opposed to the more obscure MacGuffins of the next two Indiana Jones films.
For the filmmaker and drama writing theorist Yves Lavandier, in the strictly Hitchcockian sense, a MacGuffin is a secret that motivates the villains.North by Northwests supposed MacGuffin is nothing that motivates the protagonist; Roger Thornhill's objective is to extricate himself from the predicament that the mistaken identity has created, and what matters to Vandamm and the Central Intelligence Agency is of little importance to Thornhill. A similar lack of motivating power applies to the alleged MacGuffins of The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps, and Foreign Correspondent. In a broader sense, says Lavandier, a MacGuffin denotes any justification for the external conflictual premises of a work.
Alfred Hitchcock popularized the use of the MacGuffin technique. Examples from Hitchcock's films include plans for a silent plane engine in The 39 Steps (1935), radioactive uranium ore in Notorious (1946), and a clause from a secret peace treaty in Foreign Correspondent (1940). Many other films have also employed this technique; for example, the Maltese Falcon in the 1941 film of the same name, the meaning of "Rosebud" in Citizen Kane (1941), the Heart of the Ocean necklace in Titanic (1997), the letters of transit in Casablanca (1942), and the "Rabbit's Foot" in Mission: Impossible III (2006).
To emphasize how the nature of the MacGuffin is not important, in the thriller-action film Ronin (1998) the MacGuffin is a metallic briefcase that the characters fight for, but whose contents are never revealed. A similar example is the briefcase shown throughout Pulp Fiction (1994), in which the glowing contents of the briefcase are never revealed, despite being violently coveted by many major characters.
In discussing the mixed critical reception of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), the primary criticism was that the crystal skull in the film was seen as an unsatisfying MacGuffin. The director Steven Spielberg said, "I sympathize with people who didn't like the MacGuffin because I never liked the MacGuffin."
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Infinity Stones serve at times as MacGuffins. Kevin Feige said, "We started to realize that a lot of these films required MacGuffins like the Orb in Guardians of the Galaxy, the scepter in the first Avengers film. And the notion that all of them could be a Stone started to come about right around the time Joss wrote that little tag in Avengers 1."
In Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Peter Quill observes, "This orb has a real shiny blue suitcase, Ark of the Covenant, Maltese Falcon sort of vibe", a reference to MacGuffins in other fictional works.
In both film and literature, the Holy Grail is often used as a MacGuffin. The cult classic comedic film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) is structured around a knightly quest for the sacred relic.
Examples in television include various Rambaldi artifacts in Alias, the orb in The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., and Krieger Waves in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "A Matter of Perspective".Carl Macek created protoculture as a MacGuffin to unite the storylines of the three separate anime that composed Robotech. The Hellmouth in Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been described as a kind of topological MacGuffin, or as Joss Whedon put it: "...a shortcut, in lieu of scientific explanation."
In the online game The Kingdom of Loathing, the player's character eventually must complete a long and convoluted quest named "player name and The Quest for the Holy MacGuffin". It involves going to several locations while following clues from the character's father's diary and collecting various items. Eventually, it ends in a boss battle and the MacGuffin is returned to the council. The game never reveals what exactly it is or how it will aid in saving the kingdom.
In medieval Arthurian romance, the attainment of the Grail metaphorically signifies that the hero seeking the Grail has achieved a state of ideal spiritual knighthood. ... the filmmakers also imbue their own Grail with a metaphorical meaning that far outweighs its literal importance as a physical object. The quest for the Grail becomes symbolic for the spiritual quest of the hero ... (quoting George Lucas) 'The MacGuffin [i.e., the Grail] had always been the problem'.
Hitch said a MacGuffin was an object--a briefcase, a Maltese falcon--that drives the plot forward without you ever having to know what it is.