I can't remember when I first heard of the term Macguffin. I remember someone explaining that the Death Star plans used in "Star War: The New Hope" were a perfect example of a Macguffin. So, I'll use that as my example for those of you who aren't familiar with the term. A Macguffin is a story element. It's only true purpose to keep the plot moving and drive the action. Usually the Macguffin has very little to do with the characters, but we come to know the characters because of what they will do to get the Macguffin. In "The New Hope" the Death Star plans fit this mold. The Empire wants them, and Darth Vader is driven to get the plans for most of the movie. We see that he will do anything to get them, even torture Princess Leia. On the flip side, the heroes risk life and limb to bring the plans safely to Alderaan. The bonus is that this Macguffin isn't completely useless (as many Macguffins turn out to be), the Death Star Plans lead right into the climax of the film, with attack on the Death Star fueled by the secrets revealed in the plans.
Even though Alfred Hitchcock is given the honor of coining the wird Macguffin, the use of a plot element that drives story action and character development can be traced back centuries. One of the more famous Macguffins is the Maltese Falcon itself. Just a warning, I’m going to give away the ending, so go read the book or watch the movie before reading on.
The novel by Dashiell Hammet has been brought to the screen at least three times, in various incarnations. The classic detective novel brings us Sam Spade and his interactions with a group of shady characters all bent on finding the Maltese Falcon. These people are all willing to lie, cheat, steal and kill to find this statue of a bird. Sam is intrigued, but he may have something else on his mind other than fabulous wealth. As the story progresses we begin to understand the lengths these characters will go for even a scrap of a clue to the whereabouts of the statue. Sam is used like a pawn, a wall and an information source on a number of occasions. With each twist he (and the reader) understands a bit more about the bird and the characters.
Eventually Hammet has to show his hand, and the characters obtain the statue. It's a tense moment in the book as all the surviving characters open the package and the bird is revealed. Just as promised the jewel encrusted bird is covered in a layer of black porcelain. A few scrapes later and it is revealed that the bird is nothing more than lead. The way each character reacts to the revelation that the Macguffin is nothing but a worthless lump is very telling and it propels the story to it's final confrontation.
What I thought was especially interesting is the fact that Sam Spade is never terribly invested in the Maltese Falcon. He is interested in the money it may bring in, but he is much more cautious than most of the other characters, never really believing in the tales up until it literally falls into his hands. Even then, he is guarded, is this bird worth all the trouble and how can such a group of scoundrels even be trusted? The story winds up with Spade in nearly the same place he started, but at the same time his life has changed in several ways. You could say that the lump of lead really did change him, even if it didn't bring him any money. But at the same time he is out a partner, and his mistress is free to pursue him. Still you are left with the feeling that Sam may not be too happy about the situation.
What do you think of Macguffins? Have they become a necessary evil or are they an outdated cliché? What is your favorite or most effective Macguffin? What do you think of "The Maltese Falcon" (the film or the book, they are surprisingly close to each other)?