Time for some trivia sessions. How many times have you watched a movie wherein a certain person, object or a set of motives has been hailed as something incredibly important, as if the only thing that mattered in the film was the object under discussion, only to find out by the end that it was alluding to something completely different? I bet, a number of times. Take a simple example from a basic narrative structure: a hero and a villain after the same thing in the movie only mentioned to be incredibly important, but no concrete explanation is offered as to why it is so. Numerous chases, confrontations and run-ins until one of the following is finally revealed:
a) The object was made up or doesn’t exist in the first place and was used as a motive driver for something else. b) It exists, but is far less consequential than made out to be in the film, and points to something larger/ more significant in the third act, or earlier in rare cases. c) It is significant as well, but alludes to a more intangible set of connections/emotions that are integral to the essence of the film. d) It exists, is significant in tangible forms as well, but by the end finds itself naught in the hands of either pursuant, thereby diminishing its physical value.
There could be other innumerable outcomes of the scenarios, but the core of the idea remains the same. What you’ve witnessed in all these cases, and more, is not a trivial movie twist. In film terminology, it’s a very common technique writers and storytellers often employ (and have been employing for decades now), called the MacGuffin. To sum it up, the MacGuffin in films is a plot device, something that is told to be of immense importance, but in reality is just used to drive the plot forward.
History and Usage
Plot device or not, come to think of it, MacGuffins have been an important, albeit unsaid or barely mentioned part of even daily conversations and exchanges. Infact, many theoreticians would argue that the first ever MacGuffin, even before it was called that, would be ‘The Holy Grail’. That’s right. Borrowed as a literary object from Arthurian literature, literally, according to biblical sources, it would be the chalice Lord Jesus drank from during The Last Supper. Figuratively, it is a plot device used to denote something elusive that the protagonists were after (akin to its modern definition) and is of great significance.
A treasure, or a map to a treasure is also among the oldest used examples of a MacGuffin for plot progression. Here, the treasure becomes the prime motivator, often for both the protagonist and antagonist, and the film/story may end in one of the four outcomes discussed in the introduction.
It was the famous auteur then, Alfred Hitchcock, who popularised the term ‘MacGuffin’ through its usage, and employment as a plot device in a number of films, starting with ‘The 39 Steps’ (1935), to be followed in his most famous works including ‘Psycho’ and ‘North by Northwest’. The term, though popularised by Hitchcock, may have been coined by his friend and screenwriter Angus MacPhail, but that is a discussion for another day.