I miss these ivory tower discussions that revolve around classifying and dissecting art, film and other forms of narrative media. One of my favorite film genres is film noir, and one cannot create a piece film noir cinema without a MacGuffin or a “Great Whatizit”. Scras’s seven point definition of the MacGuffin, and the examples he has laid out do not fit the classical definition of the MacGuffin. I am not saying Scras’s is wrong. These examples do fit some of the qualities of MacGuffins and calling them MacGuffins is fair. They are defiantly derivatives of the narrative device called a MacGuffin. But terms like MacGuffin are only useful if they are associated with a clear ideal or definition. Then when discussing a film like Star Wars, all parties can acknowledge how the death star plans both resembled and contrasted from similar devices in other films or narratives.
The term MacGuffin was coined by Alfred Hitchcock and/or the screenwriter Angus MacPhail sometime in the 1930s. In his 1962 interview with Francois Truffant, (Published as, Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock, available on Amazon) Hitchcock defines the MacGuffin thusly:
“So the ‘MacGuffin’ is the term we use to cover all sorts of thing: to steal plans or documents, or discover a secret, it doesn’t matter what it is….The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents or secretes must seem to be of vital importance to the characters.”
Hitchcock goes on to explain that the term originated from a Scottish ‘joke’. Two men are on a train, and one man has very large case that is crammed into the compartment with them. The first man inquires about the contents of the case. The second man replies, “There is a MacGuffin in my case.” The first man then asks “what is a MacGuffin?”. The second man explains that a MacGuffin is “a special trap for catching lions in the Scottish Highlands”. The first man replies, “There are no lions in the Scottish Highlands.” The second man exclaims, “Well that is no MacGuffin then!” (Honestly, I didn't think that was funny.)
Hitchcock explains that his ‘best’ MacGuffin ever was in North by Northwest (1959). In that movie the MacGuffin was just “government secrets”. It wasn’t specific formula such as in Torn Curtain (1966) or The 39 Steps (1935), the motivation of the characters was never explain beyond government secrets (and lusting after Eva Marie Saint).
Thus, while Scras’s first point is in line with Hitchcock’s definition that the nature MacGuffin is that of an object of desire, the examples of the one ring and the death star plans do not fit the mold of the MacGuffin, because they are not truly irrelevant as Scras claims in point 3. In narrative terms, we should consider the one ring and the death star plan as treasure maps. Because unlike the mysterious and absurd box in the train car, once Frodo or Luke encounter their MacGuffins the path is laid out of them. The death star plans and the one ring come packaged with extremely specific directions about how the plot is about to proceed. In the The 39 Steps (1939) you don’t even know what the MacGuffin is until the last scene and by that point it doesn’t even matter-in fact it never mattered. But in Star Wars the Death Star mattered and in the Lord of the Rings, the Ring was such an important and dangerous device there was always suspense about the location of the ring and the use of the ring.
Scras’s assertions that a MacGuffin should be poorly defined, irrelevant, lack utility, and one shot device may not be at odds with the classical definition of the MacGuffin. But the arguments made in the 7-point plan and via the examples given are internally contradictory. I think the origin of this problem comes with the implicit task of Scras’s article. He is attempting to wed story telling in the cinema to story telling at the RPG table. While there are some useful cross overs, I think there are some important differences.
Returning to Hitchcock, he defines suspense as coming from character ignorance and audience knowledge. He describes a suspenseful scene as one in which the audience knows there is a bomb in the room and the characters do not. RPGs present a different story telling challenge in your audience and your main characters are one and the same. Scras is absolutely correct in pointing out that making your MacGuffin mysterious will help heighten the drama of the object, but you also need to make it specific enough that the characters will care about it. The one ring fits that bill nicely. As Scras points out the ring is a temptation bomb, that is always threatening to go off and corrupt all those around it. But the rings nature is also clearly described. The audience/characters now what it is, and what it can do when it goes off. They don’t know when it will go off. So when making a Scras-type MacGuffin for roleplaying game it should be something that characters will care about, that is useful to them (one shot sure, lack of utility no, treasure maps have utility narratively speaking, but making it mysterious will also heighten the drama.
Where the Scras-type MacGuffin differs from the film noir type MacGuffin is that the Scras type MacGuffin is not a questing item. These are not mysterious objects that the characters are seeking. They are mysterious objects that the characters are burdened with. In your basic detective novel or every man swept up in plots, type story, the MacGuffin is both dangerous, seductive and poorly defined. In the 1955 movie “Kiss Me Deadly” (not a Hitchcock film, but one of the ideal film noirs), Mike Hammer gets drawn into a plot he doesn’t understand. He knows that there is something out there that is important, something people are willing to kill for and even though he doesn’t know what it is, he gets seduced by the gravitas of an object known dismissively only as the ‘great whatsit’ and starts searching for it as well. The love his life Velda explains the absurdity of the situation thusly,
“They! Wonderful word. And who are they? They are the nameless ones that kill people for the great ‘whatsit’. Does it exist? Who cares?”
I think there is room for all the MacGuffins in our storytelling quivers; the ultra specific Scras-type treasure map MacGuffin, the empty meaningless Hitchcockian MacGuffin and the seductive and elusive noirish ‘whatsit’. But if we are going to use a dissection of other stories to help us tell stories, than lets really interrogate them and not try to force all MacGuffins or whatever story telling concept we are playing with into a single mold that doesn’t fit. I know Scras has read all these books about Hitchcock and seen all the Hitchcock movies, but the examples don’t fit. We can start with the Hitchcockian ideal and look at how the derivatives are employed in movies like Star Wars, The Third Man or Minority Report (a cool name always helps). By dissecting and appreciating the technical artistry of other people’s stories, perhaps we can become better storytellers ourselves or at least kill a couple of hours applying all this useless information we have accumulated to a 'nerfed' internet argument.Go to Comment