In fiction, a "MacGuffin" — sometimes spelt "McGuffin" or "Macguffin" — is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist (and sometimes the antagonist) is willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to pursue, often with little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so desirable. A MacGuffin, therefore, functions merely as "a plot element that catches the viewers' attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction". Common examples are money, victory, glory, survival, a source of power, a potential threat, a mysterious but highly desired item or object, or simply something that is entirely unexplained.
The director and producer Alfred Hitchcock popularized both the term "MacGuffin" and the technique, with his films Number Seventeen (1932) and The 39 Steps (1935) being early examples of the concept.
According to some sources, it is believed that writer Angus MacPhail originally coined the term.
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 McGuffin 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 McGuffin 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 McGuffin?"
"A McGuffin 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 McGuffin."
The following month, TIME published a letter from Jack Moffitt of Warner Bros.:
Director Alfred Hitchcock is a British upstart with no knowledge of the Hollywood language. The thing the hero chases is not a McGuffin, but a wenie and has been ever since the days of Mack Sennett. The stolen pearls were placed in a wenie. The wenie was stolen by a dog. And the dog was chased by everyone including the Keystone Cops. They are still chasing him...
Interviewed in 1966 by François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock illustrated the term "MacGuffin" with this story:
It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, 'What's that package up there in the baggage rack?' And the other answers, 'Oh that's a McGuffin.' The first one asks 'What's a McGuffin?' '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 McGuffin!' So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.
Examples of MacGuffins appear in many of Hitchcock's films.
Notes & References
- ↑ TIME (18/Dec/1944) - Bourgeoisie
- ↑ TIME (??/Jan/1945) - Letters