'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 • Movies • United States

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soundoff (2,051 Responses)
  1. Jesus

    this movie is about as lame and as shallow as a Kirk Cameron movie.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  2. Jason L

    It seems to me that if the movie is based on a true story, omitting something that played a factor in this girl's recovery and drive to rebound is absolutely insane. Like it or not, agree with it or not- its a huge part of some people's lives, and if you're going to tell the story of one such person, you can't leave it out. Getting bent out of shape about it is just a sign that you need thicker skin.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • TomD

      Very well said!

      April 12, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
  3. Julie Scroggin

    Cast not your pearls before swine, lest they turn and rend you.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  4. Rob

    I'm skeptical of the entire notion of a "youth group." Children are highly impressionable, and, because every human being should have a choice regarding their own beliefs and/or religion, therefore we ought not to indoctrinate children into any particular religion.

    We should teach children about all of the various religions and belief systems when they're young. But education is not the same thing as indoctrination. Education in comparative religion is not the same thing as chaining a child to one specific set of religious beliefs. An education would give the child enough knowledge to make a good choice for himself when he gets to be old enough to make such choices.

    "Youth groups" are mechanisms for indoctrination. I think we should choose education and choice for our children instead of indoctrination.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • bones1918

      Rob: Our kids are just as subject to indoctrination at school. are public schools "mechanisms for indoctrination" as well? Forget religion... pick something less hot-button, like eating meat. The children of a teacher who is constantly talking about the benefits of vegetarianism will invariably go home and challenge their parents about their red-meat consumption. Youth group, for me, was about playing sports and having social interaction with friends, and having a young 20-somthing roll model that can help with hard questions about se.x, drugs, college, bullies, dating, suicide, body image - hard hard stuff for teens to deal with.

      April 12, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • Rob

      @bones - schools are not intended to indoctrinate children. You're having trouble distinguishing between education and indoctrination. Education is about teaching fact-oriented subjects in a fairly objective manner. Indoctrination is about teaching subjects without regard to the established facts, or if there is controversy within the field of experts, about the controversy itself.

      Education about religion would shy from a judgmental evaluation of the morality presented in each religion in favor of a fact-oriented presentation of the history of the religion and a non-biased representation of the values its adherents live by. Schools teach comparative religion all the time. That's what I'm talking about. However, indoctrinating - teaching a set of values as "true" though they aren't to be questioned - is not what schools try to do (admittedly, bad teachers or poor organizational limitations sometimes lead to this).

      Youth groups, alternatively, are mostly about indoctrinating kids into specific value systems. The religion is not taught comparatively, but exclusively. That makes all the difference. And, given that we think people ought to have the true freedom to decide their religious beliefs, indoctrination is inherently problematic.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • Rob

      @bones - to address your meat analogy (again, a false analogy) - there's nothing wrong with teaching the benefits of vegetarianism because we have scientifically and medically established facts regarding the health benefits of such a diet. On the other hand, religion presents values that cannot be established by facts to improve the well-being of the believer. Religious values are subjective - the health benefits of vegetarianism are not subjective.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  5. S

    Why do they question putting the name Jesus in the film in a proper context as opposed to many other movies that use His name in vain or to cuss?
    Why? Because in the proper use of His name there is Power.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  6. Cobber89

    @ Sybaris: God fell short? No. You are as wrong as you can be. God saved her life.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      By sending the surgeon to school? Did he pay off the student loans for him?

      April 12, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • aMY

      I watched the film and GOD did not save her, it was the quick thinking of the family friend with her that saved her life.

      April 12, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  7. Ann Q

    "take a look at this board. It is the christians that are being attacked."

    Oh give me a break! Any time someone points out that sometimes avenues such as this movie can be construed as heavy-handed, right away, Christians are screaming that they're being attacked. They like to say that this movie is one of their "opportunities" to talk about Jesus. And they just don't get that the opportunity to want to learn about Jesus needs to come from the person who feels he/she is ready to learn. The Christian who believes the "opportunity" is there tends to be reading into the situation what "they" want to believe, not what the other person is open to. I have run into many Christians who, yes, are very heavy handed. They use any "opportunity" to tell me about their personal relationship with Jesus. Do I believe in God? Yes, I do. Do I have a personal relationship with Him? No. My mother talked so much about meeting Jesus that she really didn't care about how she led her life on Earth.

    Bottom line, religion is an extremely personal issue. Don't start preaching to me and I won't start preaching to you.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • Izzisgirl

      Funny how Jewish people are always attacked for crying "victim" and here you're saying it's the Christians being attacked. Don't take this the wrong way, but glad it's not me for once.

      April 12, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  8. Spagetti

    Well – now I have to see the film because I thought it is about the guts this little girl has and her love of surfing waves.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  9. ryan

    I guess I wont be taking my kids to see this flick. Showing them a story about someone who overcomes a physical handicap is great but not when they're spiritually and intellectually brainwashed. Peope can be convinced to do lots of things in the name of God including murder and suicide. It's when one accepts thier own humanity and the limitations of our own imperfections and STILL rises despite adversity – now that's inspiring.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • TomD

      I'm so glad Jesus washed my brain!

      April 12, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • Izzisgirl

      Glad my brain's nice and clean, too . . . Hear, O Israel, the Lord Our G-d, the Lord is One. Bless His glorious Kingdom forever and ever!

      April 12, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  10. Spagetti

    What a turn off.
    Religion can be evil – all religion can be evil. How dumb to combine something so pure of energy as surfing with religion.
    From what little I know of Bethany's shark attach was her first concern was being able to get back in the water not read the bible.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • Avdin

      Would you know what good was if you had not experienced evil?

      April 12, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • Izzisgirl

      From what you "know"? Unless you are among her closest family and friends, I doubt you **know** very much about her. If this is how she made sure she was portrayed, then it's probably pretty close to the truth.

      April 12, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
  11. S

    Why do they question putting the name Jesus in the film in a proper context as opposed to many other movies that use His name in vain or to cuss?
    Why? Because in the proper use of His name there is Power.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      To sink ticket sales among certain target audience?

      April 12, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Blueski

      Really? You still believe all that crap? God, there are some ignorant muthatruckers out there, still.

      April 12, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • Izzisgirl

      And apparently, you're one of them, Blue.

      April 12, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • S

      And just what would people say if you used the other gods name's in vain? Just how would others react to using Allah, Joseph Smith, or Buddha's name in vain.

      April 12, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  12. Mighty7

    Well, good luck with the movie and all that. This article pretty much smashed whatever little interest I had on it. AS IF there is not people ALL over the world who suffer 100 times worst than this pampered christian Jesus freak. Just another example of the me-and-only-me egocentric mentality of the evangelist christians.

    Instead I will re-watch Precious a few more times.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • Izzisgirl

      I don't know . . . having your arm bitten off by a shark is pretty bad suffering.

      As for "this Jesus freak", how about a little tolerance for someone who believes differently than you?

      April 12, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • bones1918

      lol @ re-watch precious. How about you actually GO into the inner city and spend a day volunteering in a troubled public school? Spend a day at a soup kitchen. Or, you could spend your day trolling the CNN belief blog to make anti-religeon comments on a blog thats about religeon. I don'tunderstand why atheists are so millitant about something they are not. I'm not a stamp collector. maybe I'll go to a blog about stamp collecting and say "I AM NOT A STAMP COLLECTOR. STAMP COLLECTING IS DUMB"

      April 12, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • Rob

      @bones – I've taught in troubled public schools. I volunteer at literacy centers, soup kitchens, and have worked in countries all over the world to help those in need. And I'm an atheist. The reason that your point about stamp collecting is a false analogy is because stamp collectors are not ubiquitous in culture, whereas religion is. Religion, for ill or good, is everywhere in America. So, naturally, non-religious people are going to complain.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • bones1918

      @rob. I was hoping you would bite. It wasn't my quote about stamp collecting. That lovely gem is actually attributed to A.C. Grayling, an incredibly outspoken atheist and the author of "The Good Book: A Secular Bible for Atheists." Even HE thinks militant atheism is silly. Have you ever thought to ponder the question of WHY religion is so ubiquitous? The answer, I'd suggest, is because we are spiritual people, created to be unique from animals. Honestly, if we were merely creatures on the apex of the evolutionary pyramid, there is no evolutionary way to explain morality. The other "intelligent" species on earth that are the acme of intellectual evolution: dolphins and primates; or the creatures that are the pinnacle of physcial evolution, sharks? (i'm not sure what else) have developed some social laws but have not adapted themselves into a code of morality. Primates kill males the compete. Dolphins r@pe unsuspecting females. (even female humans, interestingly enough) In fact, the entire basis of evolution violates the two most basic thermodynamic physical laws of the scientific universe: that matter cannot be created or destroyed and that all things move from order to chaos. This very paradox led the inventors of the big bang theory to abandon it and led Darwin himself to a strong belief in intelligent design. In the end, it takes just as much faith to believe in science as it does to believe in a deity. That, my friend, is why religion is ubiquitous.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:01 am |
    • Rob

      @bones - I've read Grayling's book, and I'm aware he uses the stamp collecting metaphor. But you used it differently, and as a false analogy. My point about how ubiquitous religion is (and how stamp collecting is not) stands, and you even acknowledge it by the way you answer.

      So many misunderstandings in your diatribe about evolution. Let's undo them one by one.

      1) there are evolutionary accounts of the development of morality. If you want a conservative-leaning one, read Larry Arnhart's "Darwinian Natural Right." But Cosmides and Tooby's work, following on others, talks about reciprocal altruism as an evolutionary mechanism important in the development of morality. Robin Wright's "The Moral Animal" also gives a very accessible accounting of it. Actually, Darwin himself talks about the development of morality in humans even in his own work. So you're dead wrong on that account.

      2) Ah, the tired old Creationist 2nd law of Thermodynamics argument. Please, please, please read a physics textbook. The Second Law of Thermodynamics refers to energy dissipating in a closed system. However, earth is not a closed system. We have energy continually added to our system by means of the sun's heat. The Second Law does apply here - the sun is dissipating energy (as is the earth), and someday the entire system will die a heat death. But for now, our continual influx of energy by the sun allows systems to become more complex, and evolve. This is basic science, big guy. Obviously you missed out.

      2) Matter is neither created nor destroyed in the evolutionary process. Matter is changed, and complex molecules are synthesized (in organic form, because Carbon is so good at sticking to other atoms/molecules), but matter is never added. Clearly you don't understand even the basics of the evolutionary process if you're maintaining that.

      3) Religion is ubiquitous for reasons we know not why. Religion is a cultural universal, that's true. Any given particular religion is not a cultural universal, however, and nor does the fact that religion is a universal mean that religion is true. That would be an argument ad populum (another one of those fallacies that you like so much).

      Have you been to college, sir?

      April 13, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
  13. spindrift

    For Peter: For one supposedly holding a post grad degree in film, a better hand at the English language would be expected. I believe, in the midst of your tirade, the word you were looking for was a derivation of "clique" meaning "an inclusive group". "Click" is normally defined as a short, quick sound or snap. Just an observation.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  14. DD

    This is a movie about this family. The family is actively Christian. What's the problem with truth in portrayal?

    April 12, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  15. Ironic

    It's kind of ironic . . . many people who do not believe in God, say they are atheist, hate christians, etc., talk about God every day – God dam*it, Jesus H. Christ, etc. I hear them proclaiming his name all the time!

    If you don't believe, fine, why get so worked up about it? The vast majority of what goes on in this world is ruled by non-believers, or, even more so, people who claim to believe but nothing in their life reflects it. Almost all TV shows, movies, etc., have no basis on true Bible beliefs, books, etc. One inspirational movie comes out and everyone freaks.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Who decides "true" bible beliefs. There is always someone else that truly believes yours are incorrect.

      April 12, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Jeff

      You need to tone down your rhetoric. Being Atheist is not synonymous with "hating Christians."

      April 12, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  16. Smokemebone

    Judge...Hate...Judge...Hate, this group is a perfect picture of how the fringe operates. How about just say ok, I dissagree, and Im sorry you feel that way. RESPECT...and get respected.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  17. guod

    Typical liberal response: "You have complete freedom of speech (but only if I agree with it). Hypocrites!!!!!!!

    April 12, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Rob

      I'm neither liberal nor conservative. I'm independent. And I would say you're setting up a straw-man by categorizing liberals as wishing to deny the free-speech of those who disagree with them.

      April 12, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • bones1918

      @ rob. Really? Do you know the democrats introduced legislation in congress banning all-conservative AM radio and have tried to revoke FOX news's press credentials?

      April 12, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • Rob

      @bones1918 Where'd you hear that - Fox News? Fair and balanced, right!?!??!? lol

      April 12, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • bones1918

      @ rob. look up HR 501 from the 109th congress. not from fox news.. from congress itself. I posted the entire text of the bill but it was moderated.

      April 12, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Rob

      @Bones - there are surely countless instances throughout history of one side trying to shut the other up. That doesn't mean that all liberals or all conservatives act that way. Again, your argument is a straw man and a hasty generalization. One bill in congress does not establish that all liberals wish to censor conservatives.

      Look at the history of censorship in human history. Which side - religious conservatives or progressive liberals, have been more likely to censor questioning or censor speech? It's an easy answer.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • bones1918

      @ rob. It's not as cut-and-dry as you think. Neither party or ideology has the corner-of-the-market on free and open expression, either historically or recently. Democrats in congress recently, for instance, have supported the right to burn the American Flag as free speech, but not the right to burn the Koran. Google the Fairness Doctrine. Democrats have sought to make personal campaign contributions = free speech but corporate campaign contributions =/= free speech. But they support the right to Roman Polanski to have his free and artistic speech and condemn any efforts to extradite him to stand before a court on his child r@pe charges. I could go on and on...

      April 13, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • Rob

      @bones - oh yeah, campaign contributions in the form of exchanging cash for political favors - that's free speech. Right. And Polanski's movies (not his actions, his movies) are not free speech. Do you see how backwards your thinking is? Almost every comment you make on these CNN forums is rife with some kind of fallacy, whether it be straw man, slippery slope, red herring, false analogy (you love those), or hasty generalization. Please, please, please take a course on logic.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  18. Anna

    Great, way to open up endless, pointless debate while taking away from a story of bravery and triumph over tragedy.....

    April 12, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
  19. Jon

    Y A W N

    April 12, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Burger King

      Yawn rhymes with Jon!

      April 12, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
  20. Dave

    I am an atheist and I would like to see this film.
    To me this film is more about overcoming adversity, than whether or not she worships a deity.
    I would watch this film if she were Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Atheist or prayed to the FSM.
    It's all white noise to me, same as the sounds of the ocean.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • JaC

      I'm a Christian and I'll be going to see the film. But I see what you're saying. Contact was a book that was written by atheist/agnostic (depending on the day) Carl Sagan, and I absolutely loved it. So, we can all learn things from most books/movies, even if we disagree with the basic premise.

      April 12, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Brian

      I am not athiest, but I agree. I think the story is about overcoming tragedy, and if your faith in religion helped this happen, great...but thats just one part of the picture, and its not the whole story. I hope that once the chance to make this film came along, I hope the family did not see it as an opportunity to spread/share their personal beliefs to a mass audience in such a way that overshadowed Bethany's accomplishment. She is obviously a very strong person, and that should be commended, and if her beliefs were part of her recovery then they should be given due credit.

      April 12, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Leah

      I too am an atheist and would've fought to keep the references in just as they occurred for Bethany and her family. In order to preserve the truthfulness of the story, these script.ures and references must be included.

      April 12, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • Fuyuko

      I am a christian with deist leanings and won't be seeing it. Honestly, not my cuppa, and even less so if there is too much emphasis on religion. I don't find 'inspirational' films entertaining. I like action films.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:00 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.