Saturday 24 November 2012

The MacGuffin

What is a "MacGuffin"? The screenwriting term, frequently associated with Alfred Hitchcock, describes a plot device. It is common in thrillers. It could be a goal or an object that the protagonist is willing to pursue, often without explanation as to why it was so valuable.

Examples include the meaning of rosebud in Citizen Kane (1941), the Falcon in The Maltese Falcon (1941), the briefcase in Pulp Fiction (1994) and Ronin (1998), the crystal skull in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
, and the mineral Unobtainium in Avatar (2009).

Alfred Hitchcock popularized the term "MacGuffin" with The 39 Steps (1935). He explained the term 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".
Interviewed in 1966 by Fran├žois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock illustrated the term "MacGuffin" with a story, which he repeated in an interview with Dick Cavett. The voice over in the following video comes from the Dick Cavett recording. Thanks to Isaac Niemand for this re-edit.

You can see the original interview here.


Ed Love said...

He's lucky a certain fast food company doesn't sue is estate!

Unknown said...

I think it's sad that it is acceptable to have a McGuffin in a story. It is something the audience doesn't care about, but the characters do, passionately. It demonstrates a separation of theme from plot: the author doesn't care about the McGuffin so the story is necessarily shallow.