McGuffin

Tagged: Theme

A term devised by Alfred Hitchcock, who describes it at considerable length in François Truffaut's Le Cinéma Selon Hitchcock (1966; trans Helen G Scott as Hitchcock 1967), as an object whose loss – or rumours of whose existence – triggers the cast of a thriller or detective film into searching for it, or fighting for it, or running from it, but which has in fact little or no intrinsic meaning once the dust has settled. For Hitchcock, the best McGuffin is the one most empty of content, "the most nonexistent, and the most absurd." The most famous literary example, long preceding Hitchcock's coinage, is probably the one revealed in the last line of Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony, in Eight Fits (1876 chap): "For the Snark was a Boojum, you see." A famous non-sf example is the coveted titular artefact of The Maltese Falcon (1930) by Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961); a typical early-sf McGuffin, in the days when it was both valuable and mysterious, was radium (see Elements). The use of McGuffins to generate chase-the-searcher plots is widespread in 1920s and 1930s thriller sf and in more recent adventure sf, with the outcome routinely dependent on the searcher getting there first in the nick of time; McGuffin spoors, often left only partially traced, are particularly noticeable in the second volumes of trilogies. The term has – perhaps fittingly – been variously rendered as "McGuffin", "MacGuffin", which may be Hitchcock's preferred spelling, and "Maguffin"; the editors of this encyclopedia have chosen to stick with the spelling chosen by John Bowen for his novel The McGuffin (1984).

China Miéville's The Scar (2002) teasingly features a plot-facilitating talisman of a fishy nature, called a magus-fin. The ultimate point of the 500-page McGuffin hunt in Iain M Banks's The Hydrogen Sonata (2012) seems to be that the meaning of life is itself a McGuffin.

A sense that the McGuffin is something of a cheat may be sometimes avoided through the use of a Slingshot Ending. [JC/DRL]

see also: Forerunners.

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