As the credits rolled, I leaned toward my companion. “Is the Maltese falcon a MacGuffin?” I asked.
“Um,” he replied, “I always sort of forget what a MacGuffin is.”
That evening, referring the question to Mr. Wikipedia, we learned that a MacGuffin is an object or person needed to move the plot forward, but insignificant in and of itself. In the renowned 1941 film, the Maltese falcon could have just as easily been a ring or a fleece or a chalice (all arguably MacGuffins in other works) and is therefore often cited as an example of a MacGuffin. The point is not that it’s a falcon. The point is that the characters are after it, relentlessly.
I guess by this definition Moby-Dick is not a MacGuffin, even though Ahab’s pursuit of him drives the plot. The white whale has significance in and of himself. So much significance! I submit in evidence the chapter entitled “The Whiteness of the Whale” and the copious scholarship examining Moby’s meaning.
(On second thought, maybe for all those desperate Ph.D. candidates, Moby-Dick perfectly embodies the MacGuffin–the meaningless object of a futile chase.)
Some websites help draw distinctions among other common, similar devices. A red herring, for example, distracts you from the heart of the matter. At the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Marian (Janet Leigh) has a pile of cash. On first viewing, you think the cash is consequential, but it disappears along with Marian’s body, never to be seen again. Hitchcock is a tricky dick.
Red herring‘s history is murky. It has something to do with the smell of a smoked fish used to distract (or possibly train) hounds going after a fox. Or horses. It’s not entirely clear.
Another term: Chekhov’s gun represents perhaps the exact opposite of a MacGuffin–an item appearing early in the story and exploding (eventually) with significance by the end. It’s full of meaning, and you’re supposed to pay attention to it. Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya famously reveals a gun in the first scene, which you worry about the whole play. It turns out you’re right to worry about it.
A screenwriter named Angus McPhail, who worked on Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Wrong Man, among other films, originated the term MacGuffin. Hitchcock adopted it enthusiastically, and it’s most commonly associated with him.
In an interview with the director Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock offered a puckish alternative etymology for MacGuffin:
It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, ‘What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?’ And the other answers, ‘Oh that’s a MacGuffin.’ The first one asks ‘What’s a MacGuffin?’ ‘Well’ the other man says, ‘It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ The first man says, ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ and the other one answers ‘Well, then that’s no MacGuffin!’ So you see, a MacGuffin is nothing at all.
Which is either a red herring or a shaggy dog story. Or both.