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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 • Movies • United States

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soundoff (2,051 Responses)
  1. brad

    too bad the movie is such a piece of trash. i don't think that reflects very good on the role of religion. instead of figuring out how to portray religion in the movie, just make the movie as factual as possible...

    April 12, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • The_Evangelist

      You can witness the love of Christ with out beating people with the Bible.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Reemo

      I think that was the point of this article. There were a lot of biblical references that took place in the reality of these events, but Sony wanted to trim those parts out while the family wanted to keep those parts in.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  2. Anne

    If they were so concerned about keeping her faith central to the movie, why didn't they sell the rights to the story to one of the independent Christian production studios? Then they wouldn't have to make any compromises. Reading between the lines of the article, it seems like they were more concerned with the big paycheck from a major Hollywood studio than their faith.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  3. michelle

    the movie is about her and how she came back to living her dream. if she did through her faith in god then it should be in the movie.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  4. A regular guy

    Wow. Where is the love, people? Heads-up Non-Christians - believe me, I understand that the biggest problem with Christianity is Christians. And I am one. PLEASE keep in mind, it's not about Christians being 'good' or better or perfect –it's not about going to a building we and you call church - it's not about Christian rules that we think everyone should adhere to –it's not about Christian 'holidays' dressed up as cultural holidays - it's not about a God who comes across as Merlin the Wizard doing miracle tricks to amaze and impress us - it's not about hell and who is going and who isn’t - it's not about any of that. Instead, it's about the Creator of this beautiful universe and this garden we call Earth, who wants a relationship with every single one of us. And to clarify that relationship and it basis in pure love, it's about Jesus, the Creators spirit, love and power becoming flesh and walking among us. God is there for you and welcomes you. Give him a try–you'll be better off for it.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  5. Anita

    This is really dumb. I am NOT a religious person, but if she and her family are and their faith is an integral part of their story, then it should be left in. It's HER story, not some generic surfer someone made up. Ghandi's religion is part of his story...that wasn't left out of the movie made about him (and no I'm not comparing the two, just making a point.)

    I won't see the movie myself and it has nothing to do with religion being a part of the story, or having anything against the girl the story is about. It has to do with the fact that the previews simply don't look good to me. Carrie Underwood is in it, she's a local star here where I live...and the movie reviewers have been saying she needs to keep to singing. In fact one of them on a local radio station here said she SUCKED...I could tell that by the part of the commercial she was in. THAT's why I won't go see it.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  6. blah

    can we just tell more shark jokes? or maybe jokes about her not having an arm? Cut the religious crap. It was just a movie, it was never meant for all this controversy over religious views

    April 12, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  7. Chris

    Religion is what's preventing humanity from reaching its full potential.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • Sid

      I'd hate to see humanity's full potential...

      April 12, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  8. Johnny 5

    I love surfing and hats off to this fellow surfer but religion is a croc and not to mention destructive.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  9. Janene

    Come on really ..Non Christians are always complaining about christians judging them , but really you guys are always the ones judging christians and putting them in a box.Why can't they make a movie with a little faith in it .Non christian want all this respect and freedom to do what they will ,but they are not willing to give christians the same in return.Do unto others as you would have them do unto you ,is that so bad?

    April 12, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • Conveniently Christian

      Not so bad at all. Unless someone is building an Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero. Actions speak louder than words. I'm Christian, btw.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
  10. Jane

    Self righteousness is a term for non-Christian. If you are Christian, your only righteousness is found in Jesus Christ. Even your most righteous acts are dirty rags in the sight of God. We don't get there on our own. As far as tolerance...the Bible says that there is one name under heaven by which we can be saved and it belongs to Jesus Christ. End of discussion...period...if you are a Christian, it's Jesus or nothing. If you aren't a Christian, it's Jesus or nothing. We didn't make up the rules, God did. BTW the definition of righteousness is doing what is right. Loving God, loving your neighbor as your self. Praying for your enemies and forgiving those who hurt you. You don't have to defend God, in the end he wins and it won't be because of anything we did or didn't do. You can have these arguement but the don't change the truth. Truth isn't truth because you or I believe it. It's truth because it is TRUE. Make your own decision and suffer or celebrate the consequences. And...as an added thought you might want to read the Bible or Koran or whatever and decide for yourself what is true and quit listening to the opinions of others. Think for yourself.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • Curious

      You seem to know what is true and what isn't, so could you please help answer the following question which has baffled me forever. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? I suspect you think you know the answer (read: creationism).

      April 12, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  11. Mark

    I objected to all the one-armed surfing references in Passion of the Christ.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • Craig

      And your objections were obviously heard. LOL!

      April 12, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  12. Suz

    I think we're all forgetting that this film is about this girl. Regardless of your opinions on faith and religion, it's very important to her and her way of living... and the film is ABOUT HER, not you. If you can't handle the fact that someone believes in something that you don't believe in... then don't see the film.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  13. Timmy

    I am just excited to see if Puxatony Christ sees his shadow after he rises from the dead, oh boy! six more weeks of Easter.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Dina

      Oh dont be mad !!! Cant beat us ???? join us !!!!!!!!!

      April 12, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • Timmy

      I am just kidding, that girl deserves a hand.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
  14. marty

    THe studios rarely care if they offend christians, but go to the extreme to not offend nonchristians. The parents and pastor should of known this going in. its for the most part a secular movie.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  15. NYCMom

    Hmmm, moviemakers engaged in endless debate over a reference to Jesus. I imagine they don't debate endlessly over scenes of egregious violence or riddled with foul language. I'm not a religious person, but something seems amiss here. If depicting a loving family relying on faith to get through tough times is risky, but blowing people up is not, then we're all in more trouble than we could ever imagine. What priorities are we modeling for our kids? Vulgarity and violence as entertainment? No wonder people are getting beaten up at baseball games!

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

      Well-said!!

      April 12, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • Kenny_b

      You are so right. People are getting beat up at baseball games because a shark bit this girls arm of and the studio didn't want to put the name "Jesus" in the movie too many times because they were trying to make money on their film.

      If only Christians controlled society everything would be super.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
  16. Monte

    CMK, I bet you would FIND GOD, Jesus if a shark came up and was to bite you while you where in the ocean suffering.

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

      Amen to that !!!!

      April 12, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  17. Timmy

    Wow, she surfs again after a shark attack, what an !diot. She deserves to get her other arm bitten off.

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

      Another lost soul !!!! God Bless you Timmy ~~~~

      April 12, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
  18. S J Smith

    It's not even "God" that got her through. It was her belief that there is a thing called "God". It just goes to show that if you believe strongly enough, good can come of it, such as her using her innate "HUMANITY" to tell herself that she could get on with her life and do the things that meant the most to her. This is the same as many so called "religions" use calling it "God" "Jesus" "Buddah" "Krishna" "Allah" or, as Wayne Dyer says, "Louise". It doesn't matter what the inspiration is called, it is what we, as individuals, do with it.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • Dina

      I believe you are quite lost ! May GOD bless you and keep you in his loving arms, to fall out of them would be tragic and dangerous, May his love shine in and out of your heart! God Bless you now and always! I'll be praying for you !!!

      April 12, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • randallinnb

      S J Smith... Well said.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Nate

      God, I wish more people in this country thought the way you did

      April 12, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • iServe

      Good job S J Smith, very well put.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • Jesuslovesmargaritas

      @ Dina,

      Yes very well said. Without the protection of God then S J Smith might get attacked by shark or some other tragic event.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  19. Jussame

    If the faith in question had been Islamic instead of Christian, would there have been any controversy with Hollywood THEN?

    April 12, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • EUgene YUm

      it'd be better if she attacked shark back and kill it and saved all people around. Actually it'd be whole bunch of sharks got killed. And the mayor gave her medal at the end. That would be amusing for you?

      April 12, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • EUgene YUm

      sorry wrong thread

      April 12, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
  20. CatastropheCathy

    sounds like they are trying to create drama so people will watch the movie. She surfs, get attacked and surfs again. It really doesn't seem like much of a movie to me.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • EUgene YUm

      it would be better if she attacked shark back and kill it and saved all people around. Actually it'd be whole bunch of sharks got killed. And the mayor gave her medal at the end. That would be amusing for you?

      April 12, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • randallinnb

      it's needs to star Kurt Cameron. Then it will be taken seriously... jk

      April 12, 2011 at 4:40 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.