Celebrating “Movie MacGuffins”

What’s in Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase? What are the specific powers of the Necronomicon? What’s so special about Pee-Wee’s bike? At the end of the day, the answers to each of these questions doesn’t matter because all three of these objects are merely MacGuffins. What’s a MacGuffin? Well sometimes to drive a story forward, writers invent an object that the characters can covet and chase after thus moving the plot ahead and putting the characters into situations they might otherwise not have gotten themselves into. Still confused? Don’t be! This week, we’re highlighting some of our favorite movie MacGuffins.

Let’s start with Maresellus Wallace’s glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction. For years, there’s been much debate about what exactly is in the case that Mr. Wallace desires so desperately. Popular theories include the Oscar Tarantino hoped to win or Marsellus’ soul which had been removed by the devil through the back of his head (thus the band-aid he wears for the bulk of the film) but really, it’s just the MacGuffin to drive the story forward. The pursuit of the briefcase motivates Vincent and Jules throughout the movie as well as Marsellus himself and thus drives the action for the film as a whole. Tarantino didn’t even create the mysterious glowing briefcase as MacGuffin himself. It was originally used in 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly.

Next, think about 1992’s Army of Darkness and it’s all-powerful Necronomicon. Now, list off the specific powers of the mystical book. Getting a little fuzzy about the details? It’s a common trait for movie MacGuffins. Often items of great power, that power is often left undefined for the bulk of the movie. In the case of Army of Darkness (or The Lord of the Rings for that matter) the plot revolves around keeping a super weapon with vaguely described abilities out of the hands of the enemy in order to avert the end of civilization as we know it. It’s an easy litmus test for MacGuffins: Once the item is originally described at the outset of the story, could it be interchanged with any other item without changing the basic structure of the story. What if Ash had been seeking the One Ring or Frodo trying to defeat the skeletal hordes?

Finally, our favorite example of a movie MacGuffin: Pee-Wee’s amazing bicycle. At the outset of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Pee-Wee’s bike is stolen. It’s really the only plausible way to get Pee-Wee out of his playhouse and out on the road for a series of wacky adventures (including rescuing snakes from a burning pet shop, exploring the Warner Brothers studio lot or discovering the lack of a substructure in a famous Texas historical landmark). It’s the perfect MacGuffin since it only appears at the beginning and end of the movie but manages to move the plot from one wacky situation to another for the entire movie.

So yeah, sometimes writers employ cheap tricks to motivate characters to move from point A to point B. But at the end of the day, it can still make for great storytelling and some of our favorite movies. To check out our full list of “Movie MacGuffins” go to TiVo Central, select “Find TV, Movies & Videos”, select “Browse TV & Movies” and explore the “Collections” menu. There you’ll also find our “St. Patrick’s Day” collection highlighting the best programming surrounding the upcoming Leprachaunish holiday.

What’s your favorite example of a Movie MacGuffin? Tweet us using the hashtag #TiVoMacGuffins


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  • David Hummel

    The One Ring in Lord of The Rings is not a macguffin. The ring has consciousness, will, determinism, desires, etc. It is a character with the ability to affect those who interact with it. The One Ring does not exist solely to get the story moving like the money in Psycho or Pee Wee’s bike. Sauron already was building power in the East for years, he is the reason they run. They run to hide from the Nasgul.