Features and Columns · Movies

A Beginner’s Guide to Identifying Movie MacGuffins

You could replace the microfilm in ‘North By Northwest’ with a pair of fuzzy pink slippers … which is why it’s a MacGuffin.
Movie MacGuffins: Pulp Fiction Briefcase
By  · Published on November 21st, 2022

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay that looks at how to spot the narrative device known as a MacGuffin while you’re watching movies.

If you’re confused about what a MacGuffin is, I’m here to tell you that it’s not your fault … it’s Geroge Lucas’. Sort of.

Let’s back up. Originally, the term was used to describe a plot device that moves the story forward but is ultimately inconsequential to the audience. In James Cameron’s Avatar, the precious natural resource known as “unobtanium” could have been replaced with packets of camomile tea or bottles of Heinz’s EZ Squirt Funky Purple ketchup, and the story wouldn’t budge.

While MacGuffins are strongly associated with the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, screenwriter Angus MacPhail is credited with coining the term. But Hitch has a way with words, and it’s his definition that rattles in my brain when I see Marion Crane’s stolen money in Psycho or the glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction: a MacGuffin is the thing that characters worry about, but the audience doesn’t care about.

Enter: George Lucas, who decided that while MacGuffin’s weren’t the heart of a movie, they could matter to the audience. Doesn’t sound like a MacGuffin George, but what do I know? The Death Star plans cannot be replaced with purple ketchup. But for some, they count as a MacGuffin.

Confused? Fear not. Check out the following video essay on how to identify a cinematic MacGuffin and how they can be pitch-shifted to tell different kinds of stories:

Watch “What is a MacGuffin in Film?”

Who made this?

This video essay on how to spot a cinematic MacGuffin is created by StudioBinder. This production management software creator also happens to produce wildly informative video essays. They tend to focus on the mechanics of filmmaking itself, from staging to pitches and directorial techniques. You can check out their YouTube account here.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).