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'Soul Surfer' opens after fights over depicting faith
"Soul Surfer" is a feature film about Bethany Hamilton being attacked by a shark and getting back in the water
April 12th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

'Soul Surfer' opens after fights over depicting faith

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

"Soul Surfer," the feature film based on the true story of surfer Bethany Hamilton being attacked by a shark and her journey back to surfing, opened last weekend in the fourth spot on the box office charts - partly a testament to its appealing family-friendly message and a marketing campaign that heavily targeted religious groups.

But even though Hamilton and her family's faith plays a key role in the film, many audiences would be surprised to learn that the question of how to show their religion in the film caused huge debate on set.

"I think to get anything in the film was a battle," said Sarah Hill, Hamilton's youth group leader at North Shore Christian Church, who was played by Carrie Underwood in the movie.

"Basically, what you're doing is you have all these people who want to make a movie about Bethany and they don't know the Lord and they don't have a personal relationship with Jesus. For what we have in the movie it was such a battle."

In one scene, Hill's character is shown counseling Hamilton as she struggles with living as an amputee. She reads from Jeremiah 29:11 " 'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.' "

The morning they went to shoot that scene, said Hill, who was on set often, "Twelve producers, me and the director were all sitting at the table and they all are just adamant about the Scripture not being in the movie. And they were saying at least let's not have the reference in it."

"For me it was a hill worth dying on to keep God in the movie," she said.

Tom Hamilton, Bethany’s father, said, “In my heart of hearts I wanted as many Christians as we could get to play parts in the movie. They just have a different spirit about them. ... Craig T. Nelson, who is a really strong Christian and goes to our church in Kauai, I called him and begged him to be in the movie.

“A lot of the producers didn’t want to go too overboard because they thought Christianity doesn’t always sell well,” Tom Hamilton said.

Kevin Sorbo, who plays Holt Blanchard, the father of Hamilton's best friend, said, "Sony (Pictures, the film's producer) was afraid to throw in the word Jesus. They said you can have God but not Jesus. They were worried about that.

"The studios, you can't really fight them," he said. "Hollywood screams for freedom of speech but only if you agree with them. It's a very two-faced industry."

Sorbo said Sony wanted to take out another scene in which Bethany Hamilton wakes up in the hospital. Her father, played by Dennis Quaid, is shown reading a Bible. He reads to her from Philippians 4:13: "I can do all things through him who gives me strength."

Tom Hamilton said the studio rented a house for the family during the filming so they could be on set every day.

“They changed the script a lot,” Hamilton said. “Dennis Quaid would come up to say, ‘Hey, this doesn’t sound right, we need a Scripture here.’ The script was in constant motion, it changed on the set even.”

“They listened to us. We had some pretty heated discussions. Everyone saw how passionate about it we were, getting the message we wanted out there,” he said.

Rich Peluso, the vice president of AFFIRM Films, a division of Sony Pictures, said the studio made no efforts to whitewash the Hamilton family's faith for the movie. He points out that Jesus is mentioned twice in the film and that the family's faith is central to the plot.

On set, he said, "There were certainly lots of discussions," specifically about the inclusion of Hill's character quoting Jeremiah.

"There were some that voiced the opinion that may have made it sound too faith-focused," Peluso said. "The counter-argument was, 'Well, if her character uses those words and doesn't attribute them to the Bible it seems like she's stealing them.' We came to the agreement the best thing to do was to use the Scripture there."

The biggest question the movie's producers were trying to determine was, "How do we have it come off (in a way) that is authentic to the family's faith and doesn't push it too far so that it appears to the viewer to be forced in?" he said. "We didn't want it to appear we were pushing in faith to appeal to the faith community."

The studio made a big push to attract faith leaders to the project, setting up screenings for pastors and ministry leaders. But it's hard to characterize "Soul Surfer" as a Christian movie.

Like the hit movie "The Blind Side," though, the characters in "Soul Surfer" are decidedly Christian.  The movie opens with Bethany Hamilton rushing into a beachside church service because the Sunday morning waves were just too good to pass up.

"It's not that it's a Christian movie, it's an American movie," Peluso said.

In 2003, when a tiger shark attacked the 14-year-old Hamilton near Kauai, Hawaii, the story gripped the nation. Just three weeks after the attack, Hamilton was back in the water learning how to surf with one arm. A year later, she won a national surfing title.

Battles over how to portray religious themes in movies are becoming more common, as Hollywood becomes more open to addressing faith and marketing movies to religious audiences but worries about alienating nonreligious audiences or viewers from other traditions.

“After all the back and forth - and there’s always back and forth - it’s always best to err on the side of authenticity,” said Michael Flaherty, the president of Walden Media, which has helped produced the Chronicles of Narnia franchise and other Christian-themes movies.

“It actually is not in your commercial interest to secularize something like that, people will reject it,” he said of “Soul Surfer.” “People think they are making these decisions to broaden their audience but what they end up doing is narrowing it.”

But Flaherty said he thought “Soul Surfer” struck the right balance. “To see a movie where she wasn’t talking about her faith … it would have flopped,” he said. “It’s silly to narrow (the family’s faith). It’s like someone saying, ‘Let’s make a movie about Bethany but not talk about surfing.’”

Today, Bethany Hamilton is a professional surfer. In 2010 she was ranked 23rd in the world. "The shy kid has gone on to have a legit pro surf career despite her massive physical impairment," Joel Patterson recently wrote in Surfer Magazine, "and, in the process, she's inspired uncountable people struggling against cruel twists of fate."

Hamilton has long been outspoken about her Christian faith and the positive role it played in her recovery.

"We work with a lot of films, but the Hamiltons have to live with this for the rest of their lives, so that balance was important to us," AFFIRM's Peluso said. "I think we threaded the needle after a lot of work."

Tom Hamilton said Peluso constantly went to bat for the family with the movie, adding, "There was some give and take, but everything that was very important for us to portray ended up in the movie. We were very happy over all with the movie. We just wanted the real story told.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Faith Now • Movies • United States

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soundoff (2,051 Responses)
  1. Caryl Hodson

    Carrie Marie Underwood is an American country music singer, songwriter, and actress. She rose to fame as the winner of the fourth season of American Idol in 2005. Underwood has since become a multi-platinum selling recording artist, a winner of six Grammy Awards, sixteen Billboard Music Awards, seven American Music Awards and ten Academy of Country Music Awards, among several others. .

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    August 28, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  4. Greg

    @Mike I think the questions being asked leave a lot to be desired in beginning a conversation about whether thre is o is not a God. So lets look at this instead. As an Atheist one believes that there is no God. Thereby making themselves the captain of their own ship. There is also nothing to compel an atheist to try to argue the point. What does it matter if someone else believes in something that the atheist has avowed is a figment of their imagination. SO my question is why do you get on these blogs and write. Seems like a a waste of your valuable time as there are 78.5 years to live and every moment would then count. As A Christian our believe system states that if we believe the bible to be true and that there is a heaven and a hell then out of love we are mandated to share that truth so that a person who does not believe does not spend eternity without God.
    Now one other thought. Most people would agree that Albert Einstein was a genius.From Wikipedia =Albert Einstein ( /ˈælbərt ˈaɪnstaɪn/; German: [ˈalbɐt ˈaɪnʃtaɪn] ( listen); 14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955) was a German-born theoretical physicist who developed the theory of general relativity, effecting a revolution in physics. For this achievement, Einstein is often regarded as the father of modern physics, and one of the most prolific intellects in human history.[2] He received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics "for his services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect".[3] The latter was pivotal in establishing quantum theory within physics.

    In an interview he was asked based on his intellect what percentage of total knowledge did he possess? His response was less then 3% of total knowledge. My question to any atheist is this. What percentage of total knowledge do you possess? Anything less than 100% of total means that with in that realm which you do not know the possibility of God existing, exists. Thus rendering the atheist as an agnostic. Since an agnostic means they do not know then their lack of knowledge would leave them out of the conversation from any sort of authoritative opinion. Even Stephen Hawking who claims to be able top prove there is no God and is a brilliant man yet sadly delusional proves that he lacks the credibility to make the statements that he does. If Steven were the possessor of all knowledge then he would no longer be in his wheel chair and would have found the cure to his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which is a direct result of the sin that is in the world through the disobedience of man.
    One last thought science is only as good as the conditions and the facts that it has to work with. Science begins with a theorem and then attempts to prove that theorem based on observation. One can only observe what one can see. Years ago I had a school grade text book that showed a "scientific" experiment to prove evolution. A rag was left in the corner of a room. After several weeks a mouse appeared in that room from under the rag. (really???) Of course it was later discovered that there was a very small entrance that the mouse came in through. Thereby debunking the experiment in total.

    June 28, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  5. Moonray44

    In the article, Kevin hit the nail on the head with "Hollywood screams for freedom of speech but only if you agree with them. It's a very two-faced industry." When hypersensitive people want to take religious words and phrases out of a movie, they are dictating what they want others to say and do; thus, they are promoting communism. I happen to think Soul Surfer was an awesome movie. What is WRONG with having religious tones in that (or any) movie? Nobody is 'forcing' anybody to convert. Just go enjoy the movie...or don't go.

    May 12, 2011 at 8:30 am |
  6. mike

    So God will send us to hell for making jokes about him? He's like THAT? I don't think so. I do believe in God, but I don't think it'd be anything like the prude, control-mad Christians and other mono-theistic religions paint it. Their version is obviously there to control-the-masses and enrich themselves off of the power.

    May 10, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Artist

      When god wants to laugh he just looks at us.

      May 10, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
  7. Mercyangel

    The movie was great and very inspiring, not just because of her faith, but because of what she overcame when in reallity she had every right to stop trying and nobody would have blamed her, it's what a lot of us would have done. That being said there has been some discussion about 'sin' okay lets break that down, basically sin is anything that is wrong, and so any honest person would admit that durring their span of their life they have done at LEAST one thing wrong, if not a whole lot more. The consequences of doing something wrong, carries into eternity, you either get punished eternally in hell or you are forgiven because you have accepted the Ransom Christ paid on the cross, basically he paid the consequences for you, He 'did the time' so you wouldn't have to. Now to go a little further, you might say 'oh I'm not a bad person' and compared to others you might not be. But lets just say you said just ONE hurtful thing to someone else (most of us have said much more then just one thing) and perhaps that ONE thing caused that person to fall into a deep depressiion, perhaps even leading to suicide, now that one thing you said becomes a big deal, demanding justice from God. We in our lifetime have done hundreds of thousands of bad 'deeds' that demand justice and God is not only love but He is also just. So consequences have to be paid if he is to be just. That's where Jesus comes in, instead of you being punished to serve justice, He chose to be punished in your place. Amazing love (in my opinion), so now you can be free of the eternal consquences, but as they say 'the ball is still in your court', you still have a choice, do you accept the freedom? (By simply accepting the ransom, by simply believing in Jesus and following Him because he will lead you to heaven) Or do you reject it and spit into that very sacrifice. It's your choice. Not mine, not anyone elses, no one can make that choice for you. Now, that being said, please understand that true Christians will display God's love even when pointing out the wrong being done (just as a loving parent would do for a child), so if you have met some of our hypocrite counterparts, please read the gospels and see that these are the types of people Jesus spoke against.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  8. Peaceful Debater

    Atheist definition:
    "Atheists believe there is no God or gods either beyond or in the world. This is in distinction from theists, who believe God exists beyond and in the world, and pantheists, who believe God IS the world. Atheists claim that nothing exists except the universe or cosmos."

    Any disagreements to the definition?

    To the atheists that have commented I have some questions... If you don't mind having a respectful debate.

    1. Why is there something rather than nothing?
    2. What is the basis for morality?
    3. What is the basis for meaning?
    4. What is the basis for truth?
    5. What is the basis for reason?
    6. What is the basis for beauty?

    May 4, 2011 at 12:52 am |
    • mike

      @Peaceful Debater wrote:
      1. Why is there something rather than nothing?
      2. What is the basis for morality?
      3. What is the basis for meaning?
      4. What is the basis for truth?
      5. What is the basis for reason?
      6. What is the basis for beauty?

      Answer 1: If God is the answer to Why is there something, then who created God? Oh right, he created himself. After uttering that, the rest of your reasoning is suspect.

      Answer 2: Basis for morality is that we all have children and other loved ones that we want to see have a nice life; with no morals, our children would not survive, all of humanity would collapse, so we adopt morals that are in harmony with the survival of our species. Just like most animals don't eat their own kind. Maybe there's a Dog God and a Cat God and so on...

      Answer 3: The basis for meaning? Huh? Language is an expression of thought, though has menaing. Huh? I guess only God – only Guh-Awd has meaning.

      Answer 4: Science is the study of truth. It is the acceptance of truths even if you don't want to believe in them, because they are repeatable demonstrations of cause-and-effect. Faith is the irrational belief of something even when repeated attempts to prove it offer contradictory conclusion.

      Answer 5 and 6: I guess in the minds of the religious, only God has reason and beauty.

      What kind of God would create beings that believe in irrational self-taughtologies? What woudl he be harvesting for his heaven, a bunch of idiots? How is that useful to him. I understand your reasoning in this situation is to say "we cannot understand God's ways", so ya maybe he needs a bunch of imbeciles to slave for him or something.

      So there is a God who created me with a Brain and then expects me not to use it. Oh ya, the Tree of Knowledge is forbidden, I keep forgetting, the Church lost it's battle to imprison scientists, but we all know that science and match and anything other than devotion to God is bad. Oh and God changes his mind alot becuase he used to love the Jews, but now he hates them because they kept disavowing his word (what he thought they woudl eventually follow his word? Can't he see the future? )

      May 10, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • Johnny

      Answer to Peaceful Debater:

      1. Virtual particles appear from nowhere, don’t they?
      2. Evolution has no basis for morality. It's whatever the person is compelled to do.
      3. Reproduction and the survival of the human race.
      4. To relate the the difference between fact and opinion. Truth is made true by true events.
      5. To support or explain fact.
      6. Beauty and the idea of it varies with different societies. Symmetry and scent play a role in what humans define as beautiful.

      May 10, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.