“I’ve got to go back and help,” says Cable, and the audience asks: Help with what?
I mean, the way I understand the current scenario, Agent Cable has completed her primary mission. She’s trying to prevent a magic spell from falling into the wicked hands of a sinister wizard, and the spell is written down in a little red leather notebook, which is the only place to keep anything. Cable currently has possession of the notebook, and the bad guys are busy having stupid boat fights with a big green monster, so this would be an opportune time for Cable to start looking around for some car keys. Cable wins, bad guys lose. End of movie.
But obviously we can’t end the film here; this is only Act 2, and she hasn’t even taken her top off yet. So now she has to “go back” to wherever that might be, in this endless shape-shifting swamp where everyone’s been running around in circles all day. Back to that.
In fairness, this plot point would have made sense if they’d followed the script, which called for a lengthy conversation two sequences ago with a surprisingly chatty Swamp Thing. In that version, Cable would know by now that the monster is actually Alec Holland, and therefore someone to “go back” for.
But they decided that it would be more dramatic if the monster would keep his trap shut until the love scene that’s coming up five minutes from now, and they were correct; it’s a much better idea. Still, it doesn’t do this scene any favors.
But fine, here we are going back, leaving the priceless notebook in the care of a weird orphan swamp child with no previous experience as a librarian. And the question that we need to ask at this point is: Is this notebook an Alfred Hitchcock-style MacGuffin, or a George Lucas-style MacGuffin?
Because it’s definitely a MacGuffin, one way or another. A MacGuffin, if you’re not hep to the lingo, is the phantastic life-changing object of desire that motivates the conflict in a certain type of movie, setting protagonists against antagonists in a furious chase to possess, destroy, protect or unearth whatever the thing is that everyone wants.
The Maltese Falcon is a MacGuffin, and so is the Ark of the Covenant, and the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. In Casablanca, it’s the letters of transit; in Mission: Impossible III, it’s the Rabbit’s Foot. It’s Harry in The Trouble with Harry, and Private Ryan in Saving Private Ryan. There’s a MacGuffin in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and Octopussy, and Everything Everywhere All At Once. There are a lot of them.
The term was coined by screenwriter Angus MacPhail, and eagerly popularized by director Alfred Hitchcock, who thought it was the best idea ever. In a 1939 lecture, Hitchcock explained the origin of the term:
It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on 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 that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.
A MacGuffin is just the thing that sets the plot in motion, giving the characters an objective that leads to conflict and drama. And for Hitchcock, the best thing about it is that it doesn’t matter what the MacGuffin actually is. A movie is about the characters — who they are, what they do and what happens to them — so what the thing is that they’re tussling over is a secondary concern at best.
Hitchcock used his first MacGuffin in the 1935 movie The 39 Steps. It’s one of Hitchcock’s many movies about an innocent man who has to go on the run because he’s mistaken for someone else — in this case, it involves spies, who run back and forth from London to the Scottish Highlands, trying desperately to locate something, although nobody’s sure what it is. In the end, it turns out to be information that’s been memorized by a vaudeville performer at the London Palladium, which is where they started from.
The utter pointlessness of the chase is what Hitchcock liked about this idea, because it heightened the dramatic irony — not only is the main character innocent, he’s innocent of something that we never discover and hardly matters.
In fact, Hitchcock reveled in the absurdity of the MacGuffin. In a 1964 interview, he said:
My best MacGuffin, and by that I mean the emptiest, the most nonexistent, and the most absurd, is the one we used in North by Northwest. The picture is about espionage, and the only question that’s raised in the story is to find out what the spies are after.
Well, during the scene at the Chicago airport, the Central Intelligence man explains the whole situation to Cary Grant, and Grant, referring to the James Mason character, asks, “What does he do?” The counterintelligence man replies, “Let’s just say that he’s an importer and exporter.” “But what does he sell?” “Oh, just government secrets!” is the answer. Here, you see, the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!
The briefcase in Pulp Fiction is another empty MacGuffin — we know there’s something important and potentially scary in it, but when the characters open it, we only see an eerie glow. In Mission: Impossible III, the spies spend the entire movie chasing around after a thing codenamed “Rabbit’s Foot”, which is vaguely described as “end of the world kind of stuff” by a character who then admits that he’s just speculating.
There’s bonus irony in the James Bond film Octopussy, where everybody wants to get their hands on a priceless Fabergé egg. The item gets switched with counterfeits several times, and eventually General Orlov smashes the real egg, thinking it’s one of the fakes. Similarly, the statuette in The Maltese Falcon turns out to be a fake in the end, revealing the emptiness of the characters’ willingness to sacrifice other people in order to satisfy their greed.
The other kind of MacGuffin is the Lucas style, which flips the concept on its head. In Star Wars, George Lucas turns the worthless object into an adorable little pet that the audience loves, and makes the deployment of the MacGuffin crucial to the plot.
The story starts with a MacGuffin — Leia’s secret message to Obi-Wan Kenobi, locked up inside R2-D2’s memory bank. This gives the bad guys something to chase after, and the good guys something to protect, and the fact that the little droid is the world’s first cuddly robot means that the audience is extra invested in what happens to it.
And far from being useless, the message includes the schematics for the Death Star, and the Rebels getting their hands on it is the plot point that ends Act 2. The Rebels can then use the flaw that they discover in the plans to target the Death Star’s weak spot, and that’s Act 3 of the movie.
Lucas’ film Raiders of the Lost Ark also uses a MacGuffin, although it’s a variation on the theme which makes the object both immensely powerful and essentially worthless.
As with the Hitchock MacGuffins, the Ark of the Covenant could be almost anything, and the story would be essentially the same. It’s a powerful thing that the Nazis want, and Indiana Jones is trying to keep them from getting it. At the end of the movie, the Nazis open the Ark, which contains something like the wrath of God, and it destroys them all.
But there’s a final ironic twist that renders the MacGuffin basically inert, packing it into a crate and stacking it up in a warehouse where it’ll stay hidden forever. It’s still a Hitchcock-style worthless object, a smashed Fabergé egg that doesn’t help anybody rule the world.
So the MacGuffin is important to the structure of the film, in the sense that it kills all the villains and ends the movie. But it could also be replaced by something else that’s important and powerful; Lucas just chose an especially good example, because an object that contains the power of God is exciting to talk about.
Lucas kept on using the hunt for a MacGuffin for the Raiders sequels as well, using the sacred Shankara Stones in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In a 2008 interview, Lucas compared the three as plot devices:
I’m the one that has to come up with the story, and the MacGuffin, the supernatural object that everyone’s going after… The Ark of the Covenant was perfect. The Shankara Stones were way too esoteric. The Holy Grail was sort of feeble — but, at the same time, we put the father in there to cover for it.
I mean, the whole reason it became a dad movie was because I was scared to hell that there wasn’t enough power behind the Holy Grail to carry a movie. So we kept pushing to have it function on some level—and to make it function for a father and a son. To make it that kind of a movie was the big risk and the big challenge, but also the thing that pulled it out of the fire. So, at the end of it, I was like, No more of these, baby. We’re done. I can’t think of anything else. We barely got by on the last one!
Casablanca is another example of the Raiders-type MacGuffin: a treasured object that doesn’t do anything but end the film.
The MacGuffin in Casablanca is a pair of “letters of transit”, which are magical objects that allow anybody who happens to be holding them to travel out of Nazi-occupied territory. It’s a silly idea, because obviously any signed documents would already have the bearer’s name written on them, but everyone in the movie treats them like they’re real, and besides, it’s a good movie and nobody cares.
One way to read the film is that the letters are a symbolic object that means “hope” or “a future”, and Rick giving them up to Victor and Ilsa means that he’s willing to sacrifice his own future, for her sake. They’re not a classic Hitchcock MacGuffin, because the deployment of the letters is actually crucial to the ending of the story, both plot-wise and symbolically. They’re the paper equivalent of the Ark of the Covenant, a magic spell that neutralizes Nazis.
Getting back to superhero movies, which is the thing I’m supposed to be talking about, there have been a couple mysterious MacGuffins in the films that I’ve talked about on the Signal Watch podcast.
In the Ghost Rider episode, we talked a lot about the extremely irritating Contract of San Venganza, which everyone spends the whole movie fighting over but doesn’t really make any sense. The idea is that a hundred years ago, everyone who lived in the town of San Venganza all sold their souls to the Devil at the same time, in exchange for we have no idea what. The old-time cowboy Ghost Rider was supposed to collect on that deal, which I’m not sure what that means, but instead he took the Contract and rode away, which accomplished I don’t know what.
The people of San Venganza wrecked their own town somehow in a river of blood, and their spirits just stayed there until right now, when the Devil decides that he wants the Contract and he tells the new Ghost Rider to go and get it. Blackheart, the handsome and annoying Son of the Devil, also wants the Contract, because he thinks it’ll help him to I guess destroy his father, although why he thinks it’ll do that is hard to say.
The movie ends in the ruins of San Venganza, of course, where Blackheart gets his hands on the Contract. Apparently it works like Casablanca‘s letters of transit, in that anyone who happens to be holding the Contract gets to eat all the thousand souls, which is what Blackheart does. Then it becomes Raiders’ Ark of the Covenant, because Blackheart swallowing the thousand souls allows Ghost Rider to kill Blackheart with special effects, and then the whole stupid movie is over and the audience is released, to return to their former lives.
There’s another MacGuffin in Elektra, which is coming up soon in a new podcast episode. In that film, the MacGuffin is called the Treasure, which is supposed to tip the balance in the battle between Good and Evil, as represented by two eternally warring tribes of magical ninjas.
Elektra manages to find the Treasure, although she doesn’t recognize it as the Treasure for a lot of the movie, and once she does recognize it at the end of Act 2, it doesn’t make anybody happy, including me. They just do more ninja fights with supermutants, and the Treasure doesn’t really do anything except get captured and then released again. At the end of the movie, Elektra just leaves it behind, and if the film’s insanely ridiculous final battle was supposed to be the tipping point in the war between Good and Evil, then I must have missed the part where somebody explains how or why.
Anyway, the point of all this is that I want to figure out what kind of MacGuffin the notebook in Swamp Thing is, and what it has to do with the structure of the movie.
As we’ve seen, the difference between the various flavors of MacGuffin is whether the much-desired object is actually worth anything. Part of that question is about the fictional “value” of the object, within the world of the story — the Maltese Falcon turns out to be fake, while Octopussy‘s Fabergé egg is priceless — but the more interesting question is how the MacGuffin is used to drive the story. So far, I’ve identified three kinds of MacGuffin stories:
- In the Hitchcock style, the MacGuffin has absolutely no narrative use, and may not even exist. The microfilm in North by Northwest is just an object that gets passed from hand to hand without doing anything useful, and the briefcase in Pulp Fiction remains a complete mystery.
- In the classic Lucas style, the MacGuffin is essential to the narrative, and its discovery and use is the pivot that triggers the climax. In Star Wars, R2-D2 delivers the Death Star plans to the Rebels at the end of Act 2, and that sets up the movie’s final battle.
- Then there’s a third style, where the MacGuffin is actually valuable to the characters, but narratively all it does is end the film. In Raiders, the Ark of the Covenant kills the Nazis; in Ghost Rider, the Contract of San Venganza kills Blackheart; and in Casablanca, the letters of transit help Ilsa and Victor escape.
So the notebook in Swamp Thing turns out to be a Lucas-style MacGuffin, because it operates in the same way that the Death Star plans do in Star Wars. It’s carrying vital information that enables plot development, and when Arcane gets his hands on it — and he will, pretty soon — then that’s the end of Act 2, and the beginning of the sheer lunacy of Act 3.
This time, instead of stealing the Death Star plans from Darth Vader, we’re going to deliver it straight to him — with disastrous results for him, us and the movie.
3.29: The Book of Jude
— Danny Horn