'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. Janene

    I bet if you were face to face with death after you had been attacked by a shark you would be praying to God then .

    April 12, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • Fig1024

      Only the weak minded would gain religion by fear

      April 12, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • thumbscrews

      Actually, we'd probably be screaming due to all the pain and not to mention trying to survive, you twit.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • Laz

      Not me, I'd be cursing god for allowing it to happen to me.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • sarah passone

      omg...in this day and age people rstill believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible? We are so screwed.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • Reemo

      Laz, you'd be an idiot for doing that. You'd either be wasting your dying breath cursing a god that doesn't exist, or you'd be wasting your dying breath cursing the Supreme Being. It's lose-lose either way.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  2. David

    Grew up surfing in San Diego. Was nearly killed at 13 and fought to get back in the water and surf again so the movie resonates well. Great surfing film. Excellent cast. Courageous young woman with strength and faith. Great story all around and a well produced film. Get out there and see it and encourage your friends and family to do the same.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  3. Tina

    Bethany was recently in San Jose at Cinequest for the opening of the movie and spoke to the packed house of over 800 people in the theatre afterwards. After listening to her, I walked away inspired and humbled by a great story about a young woman who had a terrible accident – and her very authentic journey of healing. I'm a big fan – she's the real deal and I think bringing her faith out into the light of day has got people talking! I really enjoyed it – go see it!

    April 12, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  4. McGuffin

    Why do people have such a problem with depicting a religious person as they are? It's not as though such a movie is necessarily preaching to other people; it's not like you go to a violent movie and think "oh they're preaching to me and telling me I should be violent." It's just a story–the story of how it happened. Some people think religiously. Just show them and accept them as they are.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  5. Loren

    Aren't we talking about a true story here? If she and her family are Christians then they probably go to church, pray, read the bible, and quote scripture. It's part of their lives. If you make a movie about a Muslim and don't show them praying, you're not being faithful to the story. I'd rather the studios be as accurate in their storytelling as Hollywood allows.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  6. Beam

    Well...I have to say on the commercials for this movie I didn't even notice she had an arm missing and couldn't image why anyone would be interested in watching someone surfing unless they were invovled in surfacing themselves. It wasn't until I saw the young lady being interviewed on the news that I found out what the movie was about...her losing her arm in a shark attack. Then I noticed, barely, in the commercials that arm missing. The angle of the camera hides that arm...(well if it were there) so I didn't realize there was no arm. That made more sense having her overcome the loss of her arm and would make it more appealing to a wider audience. And from the commercials I had NO clue at all that any Christian faith was involved either or I might have been interested enough to go see it. I think its sad that they had to battle over scriptures or the use of "Jesus"...good grief...everything else is expressed in movies, why not this too? People don't like alot of things in movies...this is just part of living with people of other beliefs is all. We are expected to accept people of all faiths but when it comes to Christianity its like a big no no but watching people get tortured to death in movies is just A-Ok....how sad.

    At any rate I think they did a poor job in promoting what the movie is really about cause I had no clue and sure wasn't interested in watching someone surfing..not when I live in Kansas...lol. Now that I know more I might go see it.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  7. jellylee2020


    April 12, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
  8. Reality

    With respect to god's "plan": (assuming there is a god)--–

    As per the famous, contemporary theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx, God is not omniscient. Please read, pause and contemplate the following:

    from his book, Church: The Human Story of God,
    Crossroad, 1993, p.91 (softcover)

    "Christians (et al) must give up a perverse, unhealthy and inhuman doctrine of predestination without in so doing making God the great scapegoat of history."

    "Nothing is determined in advance: in nature there is chance and determinism; in the world of human activity there is possibility of free choices. Therefore the historical future is not known even to God, otherwise we and our history would be merely a puppet show in which God holds the strings.

    For God, too, history is an adventure, an open history for and of men and women."

    April 12, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • bluecrabz

      So you're saying this Edward Schillebeeckx is omniscient??

      April 12, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • yllus228

      Most Christians do not believe in predestination. Some do, but they are in the minority. Most Christians believe in Free Will which basically means we can make our own choices to determine where we "end up".

      April 12, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  9. rusty shackelford

    I did not see the movie, but when ever the one arm girl is being interviewed she seems to be slow, like hit on the head with a surf board slow.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  10. whatevernyc

    I guess I am glad I read this article because now I won't go see the movie ...

    April 12, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • Artist

      If the family had thier way then thius movie would be more appropriate viewed in a church. Nah I think I will pass on this story. If their Jesus cures their daughter then I might watch it.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  11. charbroil

    Injection of Christianty. What I resent is the injection of the news and information into Christianty. See. They started all of this with the music and everything else. Phoney bloodsucking preachers with happy bands tourning the lands. See that lady there. She probably ain't. Wouldn't know good if it bit her on the fanny. Which it probably did for a reason. The truth is we have the best of the best. The worst of the worst keeps being thrown at us trying to erode any good. A lot of us aren't fooled youl'l never get to us either. Shes just another heavy metal loser on the road. Judgement for the good.

    We have to live on the earth also. Look there are those of us that are fairly smart. We don't lack understanding. We have a lot of understanding. If CNN or Fox puts this kind of simple business up for us to read its just coming from the wrong place.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  12. mark

    "Air" on the side of authenticity, huh? CNN is a joke.

    April 12, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
  13. Tyler V

    At what point do we just say that the movie is about this girl, and the girl is deeply religious so if the movie is going to be accurate it should portray her faith. It doesnt have to be pushy to be accurate. Why would be people be offended at a movie that portrays a Christian believing in christian things. I mean what is next, movies about Jesus that cant mention Jesus?

    April 12, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  14. Michelle

    Relax people. This has nothing to do with God or Jesus or even free speech. It has to do with making a buck. And nothing else. The studio made the film they thought would make the most at the box office. Don’t forget that they have to sell this thing in overseas markets, too. If it’s only appealing to religious Christian Americans, why bother making it?

    April 12, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • The Truth has no Agenda

      Yeah Hollywood is only about the money...you are quite naive in my humble opinion...

      April 12, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • thisisforhatemail

      Don't forget about the bucks the family of this girl is making off of her tragedy....how Christian...

      April 12, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  15. The Truth has no Agenda

    Interesting...a True story that has a person of Faith in it and go figure they try to remove that Truth...

    I am NOT a Christian but I still Respect those who are for what they believe....I have NO RESPECT for political correctness needing to change the Truth because it makes some people uncomfortable...

    April 12, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • cary lacayo

      Like your reply...Go a little further and look into Jesus, not religion...

      April 12, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  16. Smite Me

    This girl doesn't know it, but I heard about her story at the time it happened. I immediately began sacrificing one ant per day for over three weeks. THAT'S why she healed so well. I just know it.

    April 12, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
  17. Thorbecke

    The people who can afford to go see this movie may not necessarily believe in Jesus, or don't see him as the son of God, but do believe in this so-called God. It's the entertainment industry after all. Sony knows who's buttering their bread.
    I am glad this family derived something positive from their religion. I would thank the doctors for saving the child though.

    April 12, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • The Truth has no Agenda

      No doubt they were very thankful to the Doctors...I am NOT Christian but I believe that a God put them there...

      April 12, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
  18. Wow

    Really? Really people? Turn to jesus? turn to god? Wow. Grow up and then grow some. Believe in yuorselves and the power of HUMAN strength and love. No gods needed and there never will be. A fn men

    April 12, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • Brenda

      What do you do during the Christmas Season? I'm curious and naive.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • The Truth has no Agenda

      Well you have a right to that opinion but I cannot figure out why you feel you had to share it here.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Ben

      Spoken like a true man, have fun with your life. I'm sure it'll be hard carrying all that weight on your own

      April 12, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • Jack

      She probably left her opinion just like you felt the need to leave yours.

      @Brenda – what does it matter what this person does for Christmas? Christmas is forced down everyone's throat whether you believe in the meaning behind it or not. For most people, Christians in the like, it's nothing more than to celebrate with family. Christmas stopped being about Jesus hundreds of years ago.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
    • Cheer

      WOW!! Guess I won't be seeing you in Heaven. God created you and has given you a free will to make choices–too bad and too sad you're chosing to turn away.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
    • naeco

      @ Cheer

      There you go! If you can't use honey to get people to believe like you, trot out fear and threaten them with eternal damnation.!

      April 12, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
  19. Brenda

    What? Can't say Jesus or read a scripture? Yet, shootings, killings, adultery is all okay in other movies??? Where are all the Christians when it's not the Christmas season? I know everyone who is opposing this movie had a smile on their face when they got a Christmas present this year, for the celebration of Christ's birth.

    Christians are definitely not perfect, they commit sins that would make great movies, not perfect people, just forgiven.

    April 12, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • Nikki

      Heads up, "The Church" stole most of it's Christmas tradition from pagan religions, as well as the time in which you celebrate Christ's birth. Jesus was most likely born in the spring/summer time, but it worked far better for leading Christians at the time to steal from other religions that they were trying to eliminate. So since the entire concept or Christmas is stolen and/or celebrated as a way to drown out other religions I think who ever wants to give and receive gifts on Dec. 25th, has every right too regardless of religious denomination.

      I don't have a problem with you being a Christian, as I'm a spiritual person too, but I do have a problem misinformation and ignorance.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • Dan

      Christmas, or more accurately, Yule, is a celebration of the solstice, co-opted by the Catholic church to ease the absorbtion of pagan cultures into the Roman Empire. Celebrate it as befits your beliefs.

      This entire controversy is manufactured. I can think of two films right off the bat that portray Christian faith in a positive light: Master and Commander, in which a prayer service is held for nearly every dead sailor, and X2: X-Men United, in which the faith of Nightcrawler is kept very much intact. With more thought, I could think of others as well.

      It seems that the reaction of Christians to movies is always that it's never enough. If the movie makes no mention of god, they say "Hollywood hates God. Why is there no mention of God in these movies?" If the movie does incorporate God, they say "Why isn't God more prominent in this movie?" or "Why isn't God portrayed more positively?"

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

      Incase you aren't aware, Christmas is celebrated by most people whether they are Christian or not. It's all about the gifts.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      Fellow Pagan here I celebrate Yule from Dec 21 – Dec 25th being the birth of the Sun God (Lugh) pronounced – Lou- it was easy for the Christians to rip off the holiday and use it. It is excellent marketing infact. Back in those early days pagans out numbered the Christians plenty so Christians borrowed Easter (Ostara), Christmas (Yule) and Ground hogs day is actually (imolc) Halloween is (Samhain) from the Northern Celtic traditions I couild go on and on. The facts speak that Jesus was born sometime in the Spring (when the shepards were taking the flocks out) and he died on the first full moon after the Spring equinox? come on people......

      April 12, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • Liza Null

      Actually, "SurelyUJest", Jesus was born in the fall, because it was in the fall that the citizens came into town to pay their annual taxes, and that is where Mary and Joseph were headed, that's why they were going to Bethlehem, to pay the taxes. On the way, Mary went into labor. THAT's why there were no rooms to rent in Bethlehem, the town was over-crowded because it was tax-paying time!

      April 12, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • New Wicca

      SurelyUJest: you've just scratched the surface with the pagan holidays that are now christian holidays:

      There are other Pagan holidays that appear to have been be "Christianized" by the Catholic Church. Saint George's day, in April, occurs on the same day as the ancient festival of the Parilia. The Feast of Saint John the Baptist, in June, is held very close to the date of a heathen festival of water, which celebrated the purifying of followers with water of the earth – in essence a type of baptism. The holiday of the Assumption of Mary, in August, is similar to the festival of the goddess Diana. The vigil of Saint Walpurga replaced the eve of May Day, which was the Celtic festival of Beltane, a fest of rebirth and renewal.12

      All Souls Day is an official holiday of the Catholic Church, which occurs on November 2nd, following All Saints Day that occurs on November 1st. The Aztecs celebrated a similar holiday known as the "Day of the Dead".

      The Annunciation is observed on March 25th. It is believed and celebrated to be the day that the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was to give birth to Jesus;11 but if December may not have been the actual birth date of Jesus, this would make the choice of this date a random one. It doesn't appear to be as random, when compared to the fact that it is the day that the Babylonians held a festival to honor Cybele, the mother of the Messiah. It would only appear fitting that the celebration of the conception of Jesus would be celebrated on the day previously held aside for the honoring of another great mother. This may simply be a coincidence, but it does appear that if an exact date wasn't known for the birth of Jesus, that a day similar to "Mother's Day" was chosen to honor His conception.

      Pagans in Rome celebrated the evening of February 14th and February 15th and as an idolatrous festival in honor of Lupercus "the hunter of wolves". It was not until the reign of Pope Gelasius that the holiday became a "Christian" custom.

      Just as the Pagan mid-winter celebration of Yule was adopted by Christians as Christmas (December 25th), so too the Pagan mid-summer celebration was adopted by them as the feast of John the Baptist (June 24th). Occurring 180 degrees apart on the wheel of the year, the mid-winter celebration commemorates the birth of Jesus, while the mid-summer celebration commemorates the birth of John, the prophet who was born six months before Jesus in order to announce his arrival.

      i could go on...

      April 12, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • Jesusloveschimichangas

      Liza Null,

      That is just one story. It depends on the gospel you read. They tell different stories. Who knows when Jesus was really born and what he did or what he said. No one wrote anything down while he was alive because he was a nobody. There is more written about David Koresh than about Jesus. I would suggest you start praying to him.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  20. Mercy Fork

    I think this article–and possibly the actors and family members who were quoted in it–are setting up a false controversy. Hundreds, probably thousands, of movies have been made that show people being inspired by religion, and the religion most frequently depicted is Christianity. American audiences are pretty comfortable with Jesus being a recurring guest star in their mainstream movies. I seriously doubt that the conversation between the producers and director was about completely denying that Bethany was inspired by the teachings of her religion. If I read the article correctly, the plan all along was to heavily market the movie to Christians, while also keeping it accessible to a wider audience. So having the characters quote scripture is a natural choice and true to the subject matter. It sounds to me like bad writing was the issue. If the dialogue is written poorly, the introduction of quotes from literature can seem really forced and unnatural. Sticking Bible verses in there willy-nilly will have two bad effects: Your Christian audience will be turned off because they now know they're being pandered to, and non-Christian audience will be turned off because they are explicitly not being pandered to.

    April 12, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • ELS

      I really liked his role in Pulp Fiction

      April 12, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      Sooo true anything to sell the movie....It probably isn't written so well so the studio is pulling out controversy to sell tickets. I Know me and my kids will pass thanks for the warning all.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:32 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.