“So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.”
MacGuffin (also spelled McGuffin and maggufin) is perhaps best explained in the words of its most prominent advocate, Sir Alfred Hitchcock:
“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 repeated this story throughout his career and became closely associated with MacGuffins, although it is unknown who, when and why coined this term.
MacGuffin can be described as a false motivation or a false focal point, a plot mechanism used to advance the story although it has little to no real narrative value. It can be a person, an event, an object – as long as there is an attractive aura of mystery to it so the quest for the explanation of its secrets justifies whatever happens in the story.
Some of the famous MacGuffins include:
- Rosebud in “Citizen Kane” – the pursuit for the meaning of “Rosebud” justifies the epic, prismatic story about Charles Foster Kane.
- Murder of Laura Palmer in “Twin Peaks” – the investigation justifies a slew of intricate stories about the surreal town of Twin Peaks.
- The One Ring in “The Lord of the Rings” – the journey to Mordor for the Ring’s destruction is used to tell the epic story about the history of the Middle Earth.
- The briefcase in “Pulp Fiction” – we never see its content, although everything that happens in the movie is about it.
- Golden Fleece and the Holy Grail can be viewed as MacGuffins before the cinematic MacGuffins.
In other words, Hitchcock was right. A MacGuffin is indeed “nothing at all”, but some of the greatest stories ever told would not have existed without it.