'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. cmk

    as a surfer i gotta say i'm sick to death of this pretentious injection of religion, jesus and god into surfing. i've never felt any spiritual connection to the ocean or had it make feel close to jesus, or any of that nonsense. you're riding a piece of foam on the water and it's fun. just another opportunity for the church to use peer pressure to try and force their views on everybody.

    April 12, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • Brenda

      peer pressure? You're invited to the party, but you're not forced to have fun or even come.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • The Truth has no Agenda

      Wow...was this movie all about YOU?

      April 12, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • Cobber89

      Well, this movie isn't about you, is it? It's about this girl who lost an arm and it's about her faith and relationship with Jesus Christ. Since it's about her, this "pretentious injection of religion, jesus and god," as you so profoundly put it, is in the movie.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • Ben

      You're not a Christian so no one expects you to feel God in the ocean.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
    • Sharry

      But you wouldn't mind forcing your secular views on everyone right?! If the movie is about Bethany Hamilton and a huge part of her life and success comes from her faith, then why shouldn't it be included in the movie? After all, the movie is not about you.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
    • Jesuslovesmargaritas

      All the responses here are spot on. This is a story about a girl who lost her arm and it was her faith that allowed her to find her inner strength. If it doesn't appeal to you then don't see the movie.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      As a non-Christian my biggest gripe with this stuff is not only wont Hollywood put much Christian doctrine in movies but they rarely put any non-Christian stuff in movies in a positive light unless it is come kind of hocus Pocus stuff then they are good with it but not real life stuff. So I guess you can write in here and complain about hollywood all you want but the Christians have GOD ever where in the US on our coins, in our pledge of allegience, all over the cable net works, in conversation at most priovate corporations that tolerate that stuff they won't even hire if you dont' want to talk about "God" during the interview. Pagans(with the exception of the Native American stuff) Buddhists, Hindi's, Jews, Muslims etc all get little air time., less positive representation and even less real information given out. I would ask all the Christirans writing in to complain to compare how much positive spin they really get from all over compared to other religions in this so-called secular country.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • Nick

      I agree with cmk. all of these "feelings" she has about the lord giving her the strenght... that's just her. she's giving credit to something that she's never seen proof about. we need to stop giving so much credit to a mythical creature for everything that a human does. maybe we should just be proud of ourselves and realize we dont need false hope to achieve great things

      April 12, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • sassypants

      Sounds like a great movie! I can't wait to take my kids to go see a movie that shows real faith in action.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • Occam's Razor

      SurelyUJest – surely, you jest...right? Where have you been the past 30-40 years; and particularly the last 10-20? No, not every single religion/sect/cult/belief system ever in America is going to get "equal air time"; that expectation is simply preposterous. But to imply that Christianity is still the dominating force and culture in the U.S., particularly in corporate America and the MEDIA, is spurious.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      @Occam's Razor
      Well I have already shown it to be dominant on our currency, in our childrens schools daily, I can probably name 20 Jesus or Christian movies pretty easily. Like Mirical on 54th st., Noahs ark, Passion of the Christ (more than one version), Moses, Chronicals of narnia (3 movies), The Nativity, Vegie tales, Fireproof etc.....I challenge you to name that many Pagan or Hindu or Muslim movies released by Hollywood which have the religion as more than a side note to character development.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • Liza Null

      I'm not even a Christian and I get the point. You're just a doof.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  2. Laya

    Why is it such a horrible to display any form of Christianity in movies?
    However, it's okay for all the bad things in life to be shown. That just isn't fair.
    Christianity was the key part in how Bethany Hamilton gained hope and decided to get back in the water.
    How can a movie be made about her decision, if it isn't shown the true way she got there?

    I'm glad at least that both the cast and the movie producers made it half way.

    April 12, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
    • Jesuslovestacos

      I agree totally. But the producers are in the money making business and Jesus doesn't sell tickets. He may sell some tickets but not as much as non Jesus movies. This should have been a Trinity Broadcasting Network movie.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
  3. Cobber89

    @ Alex: Hey little guy, does your mommy know that you're on the computer?

    April 12, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  4. NoName

    SPELL ERR CORRECTLY!!! no one ever "airs on the side of authenticity" professional journalists-entertainment critics or not- should know how to use it correctly. please fix it,

    April 12, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  5. Sammy Davis

    The cosmic jew zombie on a stick strikes again!

    April 12, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  6. Adam

    I am not religious but excluding part of a TRUE story is ridiculous. If the story is about a girl who surfs and gets help from her church counselor religious family then that is what I want to see in the movie. Same as if I was watching a true story about WWII. I would want to see accurate depictions of what happened: swearing, violence, gore, etc.. And if you are going to be bothered by Bible quotes then don't see the movie, same as if you would be bothered by gore.

    April 12, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  7. Liza Null

    But Sony Pictures is OK with using references to "God" and "Jesus" if you use the names with vile language and cussing. That's OK, right? You can scream "Jesus Christ!" at the top of your lungs, as long as the audience understands it's taking His name in vain, i.e., cussing. Then it's OK to say the words "Jesus Christ". But only in that way.

    April 12, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  8. How can you not know this?

    Hey zzisgirl, only Catholics have to go through a priest. That's the difference between Catholicism and Protestant. It's not rocket science.

    April 12, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
  9. bigger_than_jesus

    God has yet to find an amputee worthy of healing.

    April 12, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
  10. interesting

    I'm an athesist but I know how people will turn to religion in times like these. I was blinded and had to hace 2 transplants all before I was 30 and I started asking god for help until I came back to the conclusion that it was up to me I got my sight back and I'm skiing again and I'm almost 40 now! If that's what this girl needs and believes in then that's good enough and it gives her strength. The determination and perseverance was all hers though an let's not diminsh that gact this young girl

    April 12, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • Mark

      Maybe your able to see now because you actually prayed and turned to God. I can't believe after an experience like that where you got your eyesight back after praying to God that you are an atheist. Even though God answered your prayer you still don't believe. Well God believes in you and loves you and even though you don't believe one day you will realize there is a higher power I just wish you would of learned after your surgery.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • Artist

      Has god ever cured an am p u te e? Now there would bea mir acle someone could believe in. Strangley I have never heard of one case. I have heard of as -sum ptions people make that credit their god. There are many gods cre ating mir ac les here and in the Mid dle East...and so on....I think Zu es was even given cred it over some va gue a s= sumptions. Amazng dont you think.


      April 12, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • thisisforhatemail

      Of course, Mark, it's not like it had anything to do with medical science and the doctors that worked on this person. Nah, it's never something tangible! It HAS to be God just because he asked for it and POOF it magically happened!

      Praying for yourself is selfish and ridiculous anyway. If you want to pray for anyone, pray for the people who REALLY need it, not your typical upper middle class white capitalist megachurch goer. Hey, did you guys know your best friend Jesus is an ARAB? A JEW? *gasp*

      April 12, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  11. Hey Sue

    I hate two kinds of people; those who are intolerant of others who are different then themselves and the Dutch!

    April 12, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  12. JP



    April 12, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • Anti this

      There go the gays bashing religion

      April 12, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • Mark

      People like you make me sad cause you don't understand how good it is to actually have faith in something. Why would you want to live in this world if there was no point. If you don't have faith you have nothing

      April 12, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • reelrich

      Brave stance there JP. You showed them. Now lets see you say the same thing about the Koran and the Torah..........yeah I didn't think so.

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

      That's just what the pastors want you to think. Keep sending them the cash God so desperately needs.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  13. UH60L

    This film, more than likely, will not be a blockbuster. Like many or most faith based movies, most people don't want to see that crap on the movie screens.

    Movies are suppose to be entertainment first, everything else second. Faith, or lack thereof, is a personal thing, and should remain such.

    This movie will be gone in a couple weeks.

    April 12, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • W.Jeffs

      I like to keep church at church.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:52 pm |

    I should know better, but I was creeped out about watching a beautiful amputee. That's how "the Studio" portrayed the film. I had no idea from the reviews that it was about the courage that Christian faith gave to the young surfer. Now that I know that her faith gave her the courage not to hide away and die, now I will have the courage to see the film. "The Studio" should exploit the power that is portrayed through faith. More of us will want to see the film now.

    April 12, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  15. thisisforhatemail

    If they wanted a "Christian" movie, they should have had it made by "Christian" producers and actors instead of complaining about Hollywood. Don't see them crying over the fat royalties checks they'll be getting. Hope they plan on donating that money to the poor or needy.

    April 12, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  16. Anthony

    Looks like an interesting film. Can't wait to check it out.

    April 12, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Jesuslovesburitos

      Hurry. It may not be in the theaters very long.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
  17. Bob Decker

    In this day and age how can anyone belive in Jesus or anyother higher power is beyond belief. But as long as religions have the power we can 't even elect someone unless they believe in a fictional god and a certain religion.Mit Romney is clearly the best candidate but will the xian right nominate a Morman??If you think the bible is really the inspired work of god check up on your history and read about the numerous pagen cults who use virgin birth and resirection to prove their gods power. Funny stuff religion but sad because religion and man's gods are causing most of the evil around the world. Bob

    April 12, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Craig

      From 1930 to 1955 and estimated 45 to 65 million people were systematically killed by atheistic ideologies in China, Soviet Union, Cambodia and Nazi Germany. Yes the Nazi's were exclusionary to christians but the killing of jews by Germans, Checzh's and Russians was not prompted by their religious faith.

      I am an atheist but I will never sterotype people of faith has having a monopoly on human suffering. You might want to rethink your position.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Anti this

      You must be gay.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • Artist

      Craig, how many human has your mystical god killed? Man does not hold a candle to the bloodthirst of your mystical god.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • Artist

      Craig, correction...not your mystical god, rather the mystical god

      April 12, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  18. JKT

    "they don't have a personal relationship with Jesus"
    Neither do you. "Personal" means you met him. Nobody born in the past 1900+ years can say that. So stop with the "personal" claims. You're allowed to be religious but I won't let you abuse the English language.

    April 12, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • Izzisgirl

      "Personal" in this case means "one to one", without an intermediary. My understanding is that Christians *don't* have a personal relationship with Jesus, since they need to go through their priest or pastor.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • W.Jeffs

      Only the prophet has a personal relationship with Jesus. Obey the prophet...

      April 12, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • Matt Mc.

      As a Christian, we believe that when Christ died on the cross he gave the Holy Spirit to those who put their faith in Him. Check out John 16 if you want to read more. So, the use of the word, "personal" is appropriate because we believe that we interact through prayer with the living God. So, totally true, no one after 35ish AD has a personal relationship with the man Christ, but we believe we have a personal relationship with the living Spirit. Also, it's personal because we don't have to go through a pastor or priest to interact/pray. Breaking down that barrier was something Christ died for..hence his issues with the religious people of the time. His love wasn't for a select few, but for all. I hope that helps!

      April 12, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • Jeffrey Root

      I think they meant an imaginary relationship

      April 12, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • Lalalala

      Actually issisgirl, we do have a personal relationship with Jesus and God. When we pray we are talking directly to him. Also, when we pray we are listening to him. The Bible says the only way to heaven is through Jesus. Not a pastor or a preacher. Even if you don't believe in him, you can still talk (pray) to him and he will still listen!!!

      April 12, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Debbie

      "Personal" does not have to mean that you met someone in person. It can mean you have a personal connection with someone or something. Even though I never met my great grandfather, I feel I have a personal connection with him because we share many similarities.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
  19. Glenn

    Sony pictures was afraid to throw in the word "Jesus". They already do in almost every movie as a curse word. So therefore, what's the problem with Sony and other movie producers in using the name Jesus when referring to Him?

    April 12, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  20. yllus228

    "He points out that Jesus is referenced TWICE in the movie" WHOA!!! a whole 2 times!

    April 12, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • Jesuslovestacos

      Well if you mention Jesus too many times then no one will go see it. Of course you'll have the usual Jesus freaks that will flock to it, but there aren't too many of them. I don't think it was an anti-religion stand that the producers were making, just a business decision.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:40 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.