Grimm’s Last Tale: The Mystery Box and The Macguffin.

This is a post about a Drama Resource. And about a Media discussion.

The Golden Key” is a straightforward Drama resource – using The Grimm Brothers’ last tale the class are tasked to imagine the ending to the story on page one, then on page two, design a poster for that story.

Possible extension activities would include developing the story into scenes, and then start to rehearse it.

The best thing about this tale is that it creates an amazing enigma, a mystery – what is in the box? And the reader – or the audience are left to let their imaginations run wild.


Movie fans might also be aware that JJ Abrams (Star Trek, The Force Awakens, The Rise of of Skywalker, Alias, Lost) is a huge fan of the idea of a “mystery box” – just watch his TED talk here:

Watch JJ Abrams’ Mission Impossible III and you will see the mystery box in action – the thing Ethan Hunt is looking for, the thing that propels the movie is essentially a mystery box. In a way it doesn’t matter what it is, it’s the function it provides that is important.

And this is very reminiscent of the work of another world renowned director.


Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, Rear Window, The Birds, North by Northwest) was another filmmaker who used the idea of mystery in many of his films.

His major mystery was the use of the “Macguffin” – the enigmatic reason for the action to happen. This can be seen in The 39 Steps and North by Northwest. Here he explains it:

The Macguffin need not be an anonymous mystery. As Hitchcock says, it’s what the characters are looking for: the NOC list in Mission Impossible, the list of spies in Skyfall, the falcon in The Maltese Falcon – you can probably think of more. We know what they are, but does that really matter? We never learn what is in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, but does it matter? Does it destroy the film?


The difficulty of the mystery box or Macguffin is that the audience can build up expectations way beyond what the media creators can provide and can, in a way, destroy the film – or at least the good work of the filmmakers. Consider how many times you have been gripped by a narrative and then when the big reveal happens you are underwhelmed. The War of the Worlds is a great story but the ending is a little flat, right?

If you have seen Skyfall, you will notice that the initial reason for the story, the spy list, is completely forgotten about around half-way through (in the case of Skyfall however, the story neatly moves in another direction).

If you were a fan of Lost, the way the final season played out, trying to explain the many mysteries of that series, may have infuriated you.

Essentially though, the Mystery Box and the Macguffin are ways to ensure that the readers or viewers are in for a gripping ride. Does the final reveal or payoff matter to you?

So whether it is a Macguffin that we know about (a list of spies), or a mystery box/Macguffin we know nothing about (the “Rabbit’s Foot” in Mission Impossible 3, which is never fully explained), I think it’s fair to suggest that they were in some way, deliberately or otherwise, inspired by the final story by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

One thought on “Grimm’s Last Tale: The Mystery Box and The Macguffin.

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