What's in the Briefcase in Pulp Fiction?

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website.

1994's Pulp Fiction is one of the best and most original films in recent movie history. It has always been my favorite Quentin Tarantino movie. It's one of those films that when you first see it, it bowls you over, with both its originality and its interesting, engrossing storyline.

Now, because the film has been widely imitated and "borrowed from" (after Pulp Fiction came out, it seems like there were dozens of mystery/thriller/crime capers with a host of quirky characters), a bit of its originality may seem to have worn off. Nonetheless, Pulp Fiction remains a classic, an extremely watchable, enjoyable film.

Pulp Fiction also has another interesting distinction: it was John Travolta's comeback film. Because John is known the world over as a hugely successful movie star (incredibly, Travolta has been making movies longer now than Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, or Clark Gable ever did), many movie fans forget that before Pulp Fiction, John's career had sunk to a fairly low degree. Before Pulp Fiction came out, John was mainly looked upon as a bit of a washed up "former" superstar.

But with his Oscar-nominated comeback performance in Pulp Fiction, John was back again, reclaiming his well-deserved superstar status. John's comeback is one of the greatest in show business history.

In the plot of Pulp Fiction, there's a briefcase filled with an orange light. Apparently, many movie fans have theories about what exactly is contained in the briefcase and what is the meaning of the orange light.

One popular theory is that it is Marsellus Wallace's soul (in the film, Marsellus Wallace is the mobster boss of Samuel L. Jackson and Travolta). Other "what's the orange light in the briefcase" theories are more diverse and fascinating. They include:

* It was filled with golden, delicious Twinkies.

* It was glowing uranium.

* It was a really nice lamp.

* It was Satan.

* It was a piece of the sun.

* It was leprechaun gold.

* It was Tinkerbell (Pulp Fiction was released by a Disney company).

Others claim it was simply "whatever you want it to be." But according to writer/director Quentin Tarantino, it was simply a "MacGuffin." The term MacGuffin is familiar to any writer or screenwriter. It is, basically, "something used to drive the plot along." It is a device, anything, just something used by the writer to keep the action going. In the classic movie Citizen Kane, the word "rosebud" was a MacGuffin, in that it kept the story going and gave all the characters a goal or reason to exist. A MacGuffin can be a prize, trophy, a medal, or a woman …whatever.

According to Tarantino's co-writer, Roger Avary, when they originally wrote Pulp Fiction, the briefcase contained diamonds. Not diamonds belonging to Satan, not supernatural diamonds, not even rare diamonds -just plain ordinary run-of-the-mill diamonds. They thought that not showing the diamonds gave it "an air of mystery." But because Tarantino had just used a case of diamonds as a plot device in his previous film Reservoir Dogs (1992), he nixed the idea. He and co-writer Avary both agreed that diamonds were "too boring and predictable" to use again.

Okay, but the orange light has to hint at something, right? I mean, that haunting, glowing, otherworldly orange light that keeps emanating, it had to have some kind of significance, didn't it?

Actually, the glowing briefcase orange light is not in the Pulp Fiction script. Anywhere. According to Avary, "Somebody had the bright idea, which I think was a mistake, of putting an orange light bulb in there. Suddenly, what could have been 'anything' became 'anything supernatural.'

"(We) didn't need to push the effect," says Avary. "People would have debated it for years anyway, and it would have been much more subtle."

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A macguffin is not "anything" that drives the plot along, it's an "unknown" thing that drives the plot along. In North By Northwest for example, the macguffin is the mysterious "microfilm" – we don't know what's on it, nor do we need to know, we just know that it's hugely important. The Pulp Fiction briefcase is another in a long line of these mysterious elements. Part of what makes a macguffin so interesting is its lack of definition – people are risking everything, killing, dying for this thing that remains (at least for the audience) totally ambiguous.
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There is no such thing as an original idea, only new applications of currant ones. Reuse of a plot device is not plagiarism. As much as I like to slam hipster posts, I'll just let this slide due to it's valid reference of evidence.
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