The MacGuffin is a plot device in fiction that drives the action forward.
The term "MacGuffin" was first coined by the English screenwriter Angus MacPhail and was popularized by director Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s. Within the Indiana Jones franchise, specifically the films, this typically refers to the object that the titular archaeologist is searching for.
Although franchise creator George Lucas conceived of Indiana Jones as an archaeologist who sought out supernatural artifacts, it was Philip Kaufman who came up with using the Ark of the Covenant for Raiders of the Lost Ark, influenced by an old dentist of his who was "obsessed" with the powers of the Ark.
He raised the idea of using the Holy Grail for what developed into Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom but director Steven Spielberg pushed against it, feeling that the MacGuffin was not strong enough. The Monkey King as the MacGuffin was also considered yet shelved. Eventually the production settled on the Sankara Stones. However, Lucas would ultimately look back on them as having been too esoteric.
After attempts at plots by Lucas and Chris Columbus connecting the Monkey King with the Fountain of Youth and Chinese mythology's immortal peaches, the Holy Grail was revisited for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. As Spielberg wanted to explore Indiana Jones' relationship with his estranged father, Henry Jones, Sr., he used Indy's search for the Grail as a metaphor for the search for Henry Jones.
Following the release of the third film, Lucas let the series rest as a trilogy in part because he felt that he was unable to come with a good MacGuffin so focused on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles TV show. The series included a feature-length story called "Young Indiana Jones and the Treasure of the Peacock's Eye" in which Indiana Jones has an ultimately futile quest chasing the Peacock's Eye, an unseen MacGuffin (later retconned into being the diamond from the opening of Temple of Doom) that Lucas wanted to use as foreshadowing for the typical adventure the younger Jones would grow up to have on a regular basis.
While writing his Indiana Jones prequel novels set in the 1920s, a directive from George Lucas that author Rob MacGregor received was that all the MacGuffins he used, such as the Omphalos in Indiana Jones and the Peril at Delphi, had to be known mystical objects.
During the production of Young Indy, Lucas took an interest in the mythology of the crystal skulls – having researched them for unmade episodes of the show – and an older Indiana Jones, devising a fourth film set in the 1950s with aliens as the MacGuffin. He pitched the idea to Harrison Ford while they were filming the episode "Young Indiana Jones and the Mystery of the Blues". Although keen to make another film, Ford was put off by the choice of MacGuffin. Motivated to present his ideas with a screenplay, Lucas recruited Jeb Stuart to write a draft which focused on the Roswell UFO incident's alien.
With Spielberg also reluctant to have an Indiana Jones mix genres, having made several films involving aliens in the past like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the concept was tweaked into "interdimensional beings" after Frank Darabont's draft was discarded, taking the shape of what ultimately became Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. While Spielberg himself had never liked the MacGuffin, he felt part of his responsibility to the film was to defer to Lucas' vision for the story.
Following the announcement of a fifth film, Spielberg stated back in 2016 that both David Koepp and he had already decided on what the MacGuffin would be. In 2021, during the fifth film's filming, when asked by a fan on his Twitter account about the MacGuffin, director and co-writer James Mangold expressed his hopes that the MacGuffin would be considered decent enough by the fans.
Notes and references
- Whisky Galore! and the Maggie: A British Film Guide
- The Complete Making of Indiana Jones
- 02/01/08 — Keys to the Kingdom at Vanity Fair
- Indiana Jones: Making the Trilogy
- Temple of Doom: An Oral History at Empire (web archive)
- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom junior novel
- The Complete Adventures of Indiana Jones – Treasure of the Peacock's Eye introduction
- Interview to Rob MacGregor at El Recoveco del Geek (Spanish site)
- Steven Spielberg Talks ‘Indy IV;’ Didn’t Like the Story Any More Than We Did at /Film
- Steven Spielberg confirms that a MacGuffin has been selected for Indy 5! at Scified
- @mang0ld James Mangold on Twitter