A quick message to regarding the nature of the elusive MacGuffin

Here is my general attitude to responding to comments I get; I don’t, especially in public forums. It drives me crazy when people on TGWTG get all uppity and go after their commenters. As most of us are doing reviews on something else, being derivative in that way and “commenting”, I find it very immature when people can’t handle comments and feel the need to show their relative bigness by pooh-poohing negative comments. Guys, how old are we? You feel entitled to your little opinions, no need to justify them, so let the anonymous masses have theirs and move on.

Even when opinions are wrong I usually let it slide. But this MacGuffin thing is really starting to piss me off. After our little Dune masterpiece, I kept seeing comments to the tune of “that’s not a MacGuffin!” in relation to certain things, namely the spice.

Yes. Yes, it is.

This is from my TVTropes page, and, I have to say, it was the last straw. Time to eat my own words and speak up:

“She gave a bad example of a MacGuffin in her Dune review: the Death Star plans. To clarify: the Death Star plans can’t be said to be a Mac Guffin because they ARE important to the plot – it’s thanks to them the Rebellion is able to destroy the Death Star. Likewise, the Spice is also not a Mac Guffin. However, the explanation itself of what is a Mac Guffin was correct.”
Aight, foos.  You wanna play? Let’s play.

The reason I used the plans for the Death Star as a prime example of a MacGuffin was because I remembered a quote from a Star Wars commentary from a Mr. George Fucking Lucas, describes R2-D2 thusly, “what you say in the movie business is the MacGuffin … the main driving force of the movie or the central object of every character’s search.”

R2-D2 and his Death Star plans count very much as a MacGuffin.  The “spice” does, too.

That is all a MacGuffin is.  Somewhere along the line someone on the Internet got it in their head that the MacGuffin doesn’t matter to the plot, and that is not true.  In a MacGuffin-driven plot, and needless to say not all plots are driven by one, the MacGuffin is indeed the most important element that gets the plot going because everyone is chasing it, the element that people usually define about the MacGuffin is that the audience isn’t meant to care or invest in it.  The reason the Spice can be considered a MacGuffin is that it is the motivation behind EVERY character’s actions within the universe, but ultimately does not matter to the story- the story is about the political battling between these two families.  Although, sure, the spice does stuff and is better integrated into the plot than other MacGuffins, but ultimately is incidental; they could be fighting over anything.  Therefore, the Spice is a MacGuffin.

Similarly, R2-D2 and his Death Star plans; it carries the main tension to the end of act 2, obviously, very important to motivating Luke into getting his rear in gear and getting on the path to becoming a Jedi.  Very important to the plot, but ultimately, incidental.  Again, the Empire could be pursuing anything they deem to be important; the story is about the characters, not about Why The Death Star Plans are important.  Therefore, they are a MacGuffin.

Alfred Hitchcock was the guy who drew people’s attention to this little plot device.  In North by Northwest, the government agents “are after microfilm containing “government secrets”—that’s all the audience learns about why the film’s villains cause the hero so much trouble—and Hitchcock considered that to be a perfect MacGuffin, because it was so wonderfully vague.” The Ark of the Covenant is another good example.  The unobtanium in Avatar is another.

Do you follow me, Internet?

You see, MacGuffins are integral to whatever plot they are in.  The term “MacGuffin” does not imply that it is used frivolously, it’s just that the object itself is, usually, incidental.  There are occasions when the MacGuffin is a character (I would say that Leelu from The Fifth Element counts as the rare Third-Act MacGuffin, a character the audience is meant to care about.)  Hitchcock was the guy who told everyone that MacGuffins don’t matter; I suppose this is where people got this idea that elements like R2-D2’s plans and the spice are not considered MacGuffins, but my question is if an element drives the characters’ journey and search, how can it not be important?  George Fucking Lucas thinks so.

I don’t mean to appear defensive, I hate it when Internet cewebrity plebians, especially the ones on TGWTG, get all defensive, but for fucks sake, people, if you expect me to get my shit right, likewise, bitchez.  Likewise. Don’t make me pull my otherwise useless undergraduate degree in film studies from NYU out on you, because I will, foos.  I will.

But in all seriousness, I love you, TV Tropes.  Most of the time.

  • …I sense some guy (not me, I’ve got my own videos to produce) adding this as a “Berserk Button” entry to your TVTropes page. Nice article.

    …I really need to see the Dune Movie that Sting acts in…

  • TR Merchen

    This whole argument stems from the fact that Hitchcock used the term MacGuffin to mean something very specific, while Lucas used it in much more general way.

    Hitchcock’s macguffins only matter to the plot because they matter to the characters.
    In Psycho Marion Crane steals money from an employer. The money is why she “hides out” at The Bates Motel. Norman doesn’t kill her for the money, he kills her because he’s crazy. Arbogast, the PI, comes looking from the money but Norman’s reaction to Arbogast, again has nothing to do with the money.
    The money could be any reason for Marion’s flight and Arbogast’s pursuit.

    Lucas’s Macguffins actually materially effect the plot.
    The Death Star plans are the justification for the run on the Death Star, The Ark of the Covenant saves Indy and Marion by killing the Nazis.

    The Spice from Dune is “Lucas style” because of it’s direct effects on plot in the form of the Water of Life changing Paul.

    The Unobtanium from Avatar is “Hickcock style” because what the substance actually does never matters in the movie.

    I suppose all this is tl;dr nonsense of mine is to make the point that Hitchock used a made-up word to mean one thing and Lucas used it to mean something almost, but not quite, the same.

    So we get to have nerd fights about it.

  • captainshanks

    *posts positive comment that author hopefully appreciates*

  • Creature SH

    Hm, this post is, in fact, useful to me. I had been wondering how to define the term “MacGuffin”, myself.

  • Sick Boy

    I was having this exact argument with a teacher of mine in a film class, which somehow devolved into a shouting match because I called the Holy Grail a macguffin -using the term much in the same way you do- and a fellow student got pissed.

  • Verence

    This is a long and mostly useless comment for the subject of macguffins in general, so in that respect I agree with TR Merchen’s comment and there is no need to read further.

    Now, to my huge nerd monologue about Dune:

    I would suggest that in Dune, the actual macguffin, if there is any, is not the spice but the Kwisatz Haderach. The Bene Gesserit, the force behind the events in the story, are doing all they do in the pursuit of the Kwisatz Haderach, who besides being described as “the male Bene Gesserit” or the one who looks where the Bene Gesserit sisters don’t dare, never has it’s true nature fully explained, since it is apparent the Bene Gesserit themselves are not all that sure what the Kwisatz Haderach will be, and have only certain expectations, hence their doubts about Paul being or not such creature and the reason they don’t just kill him on sight and prevent the rest of the story from happening. The Kwisataz Haderach proper, is never seen in the story -Paul is either not it, or not what the Bene Gesserit has expected-, but its pursuit drives the actions of the puppet masters and therefore the actions of all the actors.
    The whole warring great houses and the political conflict is only the backdrop against which Herbert placed his story about prescience, messianic figures, destiny and the unexpected. By the end of the story, the Bene Gesserit realizes that either Paul is not their mac guffin, or that the mac guffin was actually a bad thing for them and try to get him killed by Feyd Rautha.
    Now, I know most of this doesn’t really comes across that clearly on the movie, where the simple messianic role of Paul becomes the focus. But I think the reason a lot of people disagrees with the spice being the mac guffin even in the movie -in which, according to your description of a mac guffin- it could be, is that most people who saw that movie and didn’t hated it, was people seeing it with the story of the book in mind, and could easily apply what they got from the book, to the events on the screen.
    Seeing the movie with the book in mind -if not making one furious because of the adaptation decay ;)- allows to fill the gaps in the story and understand it a little better, but also gives the viewer a bias, he is not actually seeing just the movie, he is seeing a synthesis of a story he already knows.
    Even if the viewer/reader does not agrees with the Kwizats Haderach being the actual mac guffin -they may say there is no mac guffin in Dune-, they can see that the spice cannot simply be exchanged by anything else available within the setting, and get the same story, for instance, you cannot put the rice exports from Caladan, or the Mentat drug, in place of the spice, and get the same story since neither of those drive the economy of the Imperium. The thing about the spice is that it is not only an allegory for oil, but it is so trough a process -granting prescience- that also allows the protagonist to become the vehicle of the story -a perfect prescient-, and within the setting no other element could have done that.
    See, for instance I would agree that on Spore, the spice really is a macguffin, for even though important to the game (it drives the economy and therefore the advance of your species, so you have to fight for it), it could have been anything else, the creators of the game could have got rid of the spice and put the rare gems that currently are collectibles, in its place, change the spice geysers to rare gem mines, and the story would have been the same.
    I know, I know, I’m a huge nerd, but in my defense I’m only this annoying when the subject is Dune.

  • N

    Don’t let the commentators get to you. You are the one with the film degree and you know what you are talking about.

  • Here, here, Lindsay. Here, here!

    ~Lord MacGuffin

  • dm

    My favorite MacGuffin is the briefcase from Pulp Fiction. Personally, I’ve always thought it was full of Big Kahuna Burger…burgers.

  • You sass that troll Lindsey! I learned something about MacGuffins today!

  • Erin

    I get similar crap from 12 year olds trying to school me on character design and animation. I hate having to wave around my degree but COME ON people. Trust I know what I’m doing! Or do I need to be a named credit on some famous movie before you give me credit that I might know what I’m talking about.

  • Sunshine

    If the comment on TV Tropes is that wrong, why not edit it out?

    (Is editing your own page is the thin end of a wedge leading to egotistical madness?)

    Still, I get the difference. The briefcase in Pulp Fiction (or the silver case in Ronin) did nothing and everyone wanted it for reasons we never learned. It was just the focus of the plot. Spice, though, is vitally important for interstellar travel. So I suppose it’s like oil, really.

    On the other hand, I see that the Spice isn’t important to the plot, like the real details of what happened to River in Firefly; that the families war over Arrakis is enough.

  • About time someone addressed this! Thank you. As a big fan of Dune (the book, the movie wasn’t so great), I know that the Spice really is the most important element of the story. It practically runs that universe, without it, it would fail on a economic and political level.

    MacGuffen? Yes. Necessary? Yes! Without it, Dune would not be the classic tale it is today.

  • Josh

    Very lulzy that Lindsay doesn’t approve of Film Brain’s shithead tactics as a mod.

  • Jessica

    I’d be willing to bet money that the reason why so many people had a problem with your (correct) version of the MacGuffin was probably because you used Star Wars as the example and some of the fandom went something along the lines of ‘HOW DARE YOU EVEN MILDLY POINT OUT SOMETHING THAT IS NOT UNEQUIVOCABLY BRILLIANT IN THE ORIGINAL TRILOGY!1!! YOUR AS BAD AS JAR JAR BINKS!’… Or something along those lines.

    From my personal movie-watching experience the best MacGuffin example is the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, which is a lot like the Death Star plans in that it is the entire Jules and Vincent subplot is pretty much centred around getting and returning the thing and all the shenanigans that happen because of it, but more people are willing to see it as a complete MacGuffin because nobody actually knows what’s in the suitcase(Gold Star stickers and rainbows is my guess) as well as the characters being such… well… you know… characters. Perhaps if R2D2 had a wallet that said ‘Bad-Ass MotherFucker’ on it people would have been slightly more forgiving.

  • QuintanaDS

    As the person who wrote the TV Tropes comment in question (except for the “Likewise, the Spice is also not a Mac Guffin.” part), I apologize for upsetting you, Miss Ellis. I was basing myself on Hitchcock’s definition of a MacGuffin, without pausing to consider the term might have other definitions.

    • Eyyyy, you didn’t upset me. Draw dismemberment porn with my likeness, then you’ll upset me. Nahh, I just got frustrated with the Dune reception; the TVtropes bit was the last straw, but I feel like I… well I don’t want to say wasted, but I INVESTED an awful lot of money on my useless little film studies degree, in which we learned that MacGuffin basically follows the rule that it motivates the PLOT (we have to get the princess out before the palace EXPLODES because of the MACGUFFIN) while having nothing to do with the story (the hero must overcome his fears and come of age and bone that princess!). Plot and story, while intertwined, are not the same. MacGuffin motivates plot; doesn’t involve itself much in story.

      La!

      • QuintanaDS

        That’s good to know, then. 🙂 And for what it’s worth, I usually do greatly enjoy your reviews, and I’m looking forward to the next ones.
        Cheers!

    • One more thing- Douchey guest stars as a nitpicker- don’t take this personally! This was written waaaay before the whole TVtropes incident; it was inspired by many voices, not just one. 😉

    • Hmm, this site seems to be password protected.

      • It’s just a sound file about the topic: I could link to the equivalent in plain text, but frankly I think there’s nothing there that you haven’t heard before.

  • Sunshine

    Saw the review of The Fifth Element. Yes, you’re absolutely right.

    Anyway, my stash of pictures awaits.

  • Iansean

    Just saw your review of the Fifth Element and it drew me to this article. Although you example yourself very well and I would say your explenation of the elusive MacGuffin is mostly acurate, there is one small factor missing.
    While it’s true in general a MacGuffin is vital to the plot while not needing to be very specific, it can’t be just anything! At the very least it has to fit with the circumstance of the story (except maybe if we’re dealing with a totally cartoonish universe where characters can pull alegaters of their pockets).
    I also first became familar with the concept from Alfred Hitchcock, but it had to do with Notorious. He said that in the original script the Nazi’s were supposed to be hiding rocket fuel in the wine seller, but someone at the studio found that to be far fetched. Hitchcock told them”if you don’t like that idea, how about we make it industrial diamonds.” The important things is that it could fit with the plot. Therefore, the illegal goods couldn’t be something that wouldn’t fit in a wine bottle.
    Hitchcock went on to say in the same interview, that the term MacGuffin derived from a shaggy dog story were several passengers on a train asked a mysterious stranger what was in a package he was carring. He said it was a Macguffin. When they asked what that is. he said it was used to catch tigers in the Scottish highlands. When they complained that there are no tigers in the scottish highlands he said, “Well, I guess it’s not a MacGuffin than.”
    So to recap a MacGuffin has to be:
    a) usefull to the plot
    b) easily interchangable with a similar persons, place, or thing
    c) of concern to one or more central characters
    d) of little or no concern to the audience
    BTW in case your wondering, I do have a major in communications and a minor in film

    • Iansean

      Looking back at me on passage I see I had a sligh bobo: I meant to say “…pull allegaters out of their pockets.”
      Sorry if their was any confusion.

  • xkaliburr

    I think the problem stems from the MacGuffin being misused by George Lucas, and it is being taught a different way. You said that Hitchcock said that the MacGuffin didn’t matter. Thing is, Hitchcock defined the MacGuffin. It is his. He brought it about. I would say that going with any definition other than his is like telling Robert Frost that he wrote a poem about suicide instead of a poem about a fence, then nobody listens when he says the poem isn’t about suicide. But now, everyone uses a false definition of MacGuffin, because Lucas said this.

  • Derek

    I think that the main problem with your MacGuffin definition that the fans don’t like is that Spice or R2-D2 cannot be replaced with absolutely ANYTHING.

    In Pulp Fiction the contents of the shiny suitcase were absolutely inconsequential to the plot, and that’s what many people take to be a true MacGuffin.

    Personally I like your definition too, there’s more than one type of MacGuffin.

  • Don’t love TV tropes. As much as they may worship you (and they led me to you, so I’ll give ’em that) I’ve found the site is nothing but a distraction from things I really want to do. Also, banging a few tropes together doesn’t get you a completed work, and TV tropes has a bad habit of focusing on the wrong issues namely continuity and cannon. These are issues that can distract people from creating truly great works. A fool’s consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.

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