The classical hero carried out his quest as a matter of honour, because it was his sacred duty. This usually meant slaying the monster, and winning the hand of the princess. His goal, and what was expected of him, was clearly set out. The contemporary protagonist (hero or antihero) exists in a murky world of deception and uncertainty. The ‘monster’ might turn out to be someone they work with (The Bourne Identity, The Ipcress File), or exist within their own thoughts (A Brilliant Mind, The Shining) — nothing can be taken for granted. Their quest is much less certain, and can even turn out to be pointless.
The ‘MacGuffin’ in storytelling is a plot element that is later revealed to be unimportant. It’s a trick used by storytellers to add tension, a device to distract the audience — something that enables other things to happen. Considering how important a well-executed plot is to convey an interesting storytelling, you might wonder how a storyteller can deliberately use an inconsequential plot? The answer is that the plot is either subordinate to character development, or facilitates a character driven story. In film noir, for example, a series of odd events and mysterious clues provides a set of challenges for the protagonist — the real story, however, turns out to be the protagonist’s inner journey. His or her changing perception of the world.
Noir and Neo-Noir fiction is known for its rambling plots, the meandering cul-de-sacs, the main character dodging and weaving from one clue to the next — but the succession of trails leads nowhere. Suddenly, at the end, the protagonist discovers information that solves the puzzle. The plot provides a ‘merry-go-round,’ experience, a series of challenges designed to test the hero. The satisfaction comes from savouring the character’s changing mental representation of the world around them, ‘wising up’ and seeing reality for what it is. In The Third Man we follow Holly Martins as he searches for his missing friend, but the story is really about his journey — a personal journey of learning and self-discovery. The film contextualises his naïve goodness against the corrupted soul of his so-called ‘friend’. Likewise, the search for a missing heroin brick in Brick is the story of Brendan Frye’s journey, a rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood.
In Film Noir we often see good characters facing the unpleasant truth in a harsh world as they are exploited and manipulated by others. They serve as a warning, a metaphor for the struggle and confusion the audience itself faces in challenging times, in a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world. The gangster story from 1930s Hollywood films on through to Scarface (1984) sees the main character go on a pointless quest, one of tragic self-destruction. This is the rise and fall gangster story — rags to riches and back to rags again. It carries a powerful didactic message, a warning about the consequences of uncontrolled greed. Even an apparently ‘pointless quest,’ for the protagonist has meaning and purpose for the audience.
The MacGuffin plot might lead ‘nowhere’, but it should facilitate something the storyteller wishes to explore. In The Third Man Holly Martins changes from being a ‘nobody’, who writes what we imagine are second rate cowboy stories (he’s a classic ‘nice guy’), to become a world-wise realist. The tough reality is emphasised by the story’s location, harsh conditions of post Second World War Vienna. In this place everyone is conning someone, or being conned by someone. Similarly, in The Long Goodbye, Marlowe goes on a journey that sees him physically travel to Mexico, but it’s really the journey of his transformation from passive indifference, to anger, and finally, action. Initially Marlowe’s stoic attitude allows him to shrug-off the world, but after it becomes personal he’s forced to confront it with the same violence he deplores. The Long Goodbye is about Marlowe’s transformation from aloofness, to cynicism, and revenge.
In Ice Cold in Alex a band of soldiers and nurses travel through the desert, escaping the clutches of the enemy, and returning to the safety of Alexandria. But this is not a Second World War story, or a ‘War Movie’ as such, it’s a story about: surviving against nature, the human struggle, community, retaining our humanity — trust and forgiveness. The quest is not about arriving in Alexandria. It’s about having a beer with a newfound friend.
In The Big Lebowski Jeff Lebowski goes through a series of increasingly surreal loops and hurdles, encountering lies, greed and stupidity. His fundamental desire is to live the quiet life, without interruption, to avoid being in ‘the story’ as it were — to essentially exist within a plotless un-story where ‘nothing’ happens except for dull evenings down at the bowling alley and burning through excessive amounts of weed. The plot is an embellishment, because the real story is ‘The Dude’ himself.
In The Bridge on the River Kwai Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson builds a bridge and then blows it up, which on the face of it seems pretty pointless. And yet, it’s only through this futile and ultimately failed quest that the audience can empathise with him — and truly understand his conflicting emotions. The bridge is an external representation of his vanity. It must be destroyed for him to transcend his denial, and to restore normality. Normality is the ‘natural balance’ in the story, a return to the place that existed before the ‘monster’ arrived.
The pointless quest provides a situation where the audience can witness a character’s transformation. Even if there is no obvious reversal of fortune, there will be a change in the way the character sees the world.