What is a MacGuffin? Plus a Detailed List Of MacGuffin Examples
What is a MacGuffin? In short: it's the reason you're watching the movie.
That's it right? Well... it's a little more nuanced than that.
We're going to provide over 10 MacGuffin examples that will help you understand just how influential and varied this all-important device really is.
What is a MacGuffin To The Man Who Popularized The Concept
Originally coined by Alfred Hitchcock, the MacGuffin is one of those things that are easy to spot but difficult to explain—like, say, the Nickelback fandom.
Most understand MacGuffins as an important element that serves the story in some capacity, but apart from that, their definition gets a little hazy, but this video essay by ScreenPrism demystifies the Hitchcockian concept once and for all, and even offers George Lucas' alternative meaning for the term for comparison.
If you want to know what a MacGuffin is, you should probably start by asking the man who created the term. Hitchcock says:
[A man] says, "Well, what is a MacGuffin?" You say, "It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish highlands." Man says, "But there are no lions in the Scottish highlands." Then you say, "Then that's no MacGuffin."
Lotsa help there, Hitch.
He does give a pretty good explanation when he describes it as "the thing that the characters on the screen worry about but the audience doesn't care about."
So, a MacGuffin is a plot device that acts as a catalyst to drive some of the action in the story.
A couple of great MacGuffin examples are the stolen money that motivates all of Marion Crane's actions in Psycho, or the Heart of the Ocean in Titanic. These are known as "pure MacGuffins" because they follow Hitchcock's strict criteria: they must be incredibly important to the characters, but quite vague and meaningless to the story itself.
However, George Lucas' interpretation of the plot device is slightly different.
How About A Different MacGuffin Definition?
To Lucas, a MacGuffin is still an object/prop that acts as a plot device, but it's just as important to the audience as it is to the characters. Things like the ring in The Lord of the Rings, the Horcruxes in the Harry Potter series, and the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark are great MacGuffin examples.
Whether you're a MacGuffin purist or a believer of the modern MacGuffin, it's always good to give more thought to the props you use in your films.
Many times new filmmakers won't be as intentional as they could be with the objects that appear on screen, but props can be used in so many pivotal ways, whether to bring some realism to your scene or add some nuance to your character.
More Examples of Hitchcock's MacGuffin
In Notorious, the MacGuffin is uranium ore stored in wine bottles.
Vertigo has the necklace. And a case of Vertigo...
Rear Window's MacGuffin is a suspected committed across the courtyard.
The MacGuffin in The Lady Vanishes is a coded message in a piece of music.
In Dial M For Murder it's a spare apartment key.
Notice how in some of these instances the MacGuffin is something you could watch the movie and not even remember. While in other instances, like Rear Window, the MacGuffin looms large over every single scene.
The point is that you can make your movie truly a MacGuffin film, just but focusing so much story energy on it, or you can have it be something that fades to the background but kicks the plot into gear.
More Famous MacGuffin Examples
Almost every movie has a MacGuffin of some sort. The movie The Founder about the story behind McDonald's even had some Egg McGuffins.
That was so bad. Just couldn't help it.
Ok here are some more unforgettable MacGuffins:
The Maltese Falcon has a pretty good MacGuffin. It's the Maltese Falcon itself.
Citizen Kane has one of history's most unforgettable ones: Rosebud. The word, uttered by a dying magnate, becomes a source of fascination for one reporter. Along the way he learns other things, but never what Kane meant by the word.
We learn though.
Pulp Fiction has the shining case. A lot of movies use a mysterious briefcase as a MacGuffin.
Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan has the genesis device. A strange all-powerful tool to create life, which becomes a great metaphor when the movie's main theme is aging and death.
Star Wars has, of course, the death star plans. Interestingly enough, that MacGuffin was so 'epic' that it got it's own spinoff movie, Rogue One.
What Is a MacGuffin But Also WHO Is a MacGuffin?
Yes, MacGuffins can be characters. Let's start off with how the Star Wars franchise does this.
There is an interesting case to be made that The Empire Strikes Back sets Darth Vader as it's protagonist, with Luke Skywalker himself as the MacGuffin. On the other hand, Leia could be the true protagonist to that sequel, with "love" being a sort of MacGuffin...
In either case, the sequel The Force Awakens certainly turns the Luke character into a traditional MacGuffin.
The Hangover's MacGuffin is the groom, who they lost in the night they can't remember. People loved the Hangover, but the genius behind it's success is having such a clever and creative MacGuffin.
It's a great example because the entire plot, and all the comical situation, arise out of that simple set up. We went out partying and we lose the groom.
Private Ryan is a MacGuffin in Saving Private Ryan. And the characters we follow aren't too thrilled about it either.
Colonel Kurtz is the MacGuffin in Apocalypse Now. Can you really have a better movie MacGuffin than Marlon Brando?
Wrapping Up All This MacGuffin Business.
Now that you know what a MacGuffin is, be sure to tell everybody who asks you about it the whole "trapping lions in the Scottish highlands" thing," because life isn't fair.
But what you can really do with this knowledge is use a creative MacGuffin idea to launch your next script. Once you have a fun MacGuffin in mind you might be ready to start putting together a treatment.
When you really think about it, a MacGuffin is the most important single element to your story. Without it there isn't much of a plot.
So go find your MacGuffin!