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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. Eric G

    Cnn.......... Seroiously............. Fix the blogs........... It's not that hard.

    April 12, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • asdf

      Yeah long live the Jesus freaks. How would the Republican party claim to believe in personal freedom but want to control our morals without the Jesus freak wing of the party. So glad they are there to protect us from thinking for ourselves and being adults.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
    • Dave

      Faith is a crutch for the weak-minded. How could anyone possibly believe in the nonsense we find in the Bible, Quran, etc? It amazes me that humanity continues to hang on to these 2000-year-old bed-time stories with such vigor.

      We don't need religion to be moral. We just need to do the right thing.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • Monson

      I guess you're right, we don't need religion to be moral. But if you truly follow Jesus and not religion, it could certainly help. But I have a feeling, that these 2,000 year old bed-time stories are not going away any time soon.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
  2. David

    The movie producers shouldn't have approached making this movie if they didn't want God involved. Christ was entangled in every aspect of this girl's life and it would be a sham if He wasn't involved in the movie.

    Movies aren't made to make money, they are made to inspire, they are an art form. Their creators shouldn't be interested in the money, they should be interested in their work and doing their work right.

    This isn't a debate about Christ and evolution and all that jazz. This is about the censorship of a religion in a real life story where God played an important role. Get on topic you jack-wagons.

    April 12, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  3. im right

    Interesting.....Hollywood can "force" any other "agenda" they want in their movies but they have to skate on thin ice when it comes to religion. You know like some movie about baseball and some fan is gay...like we need to know that about the movie. Here is an idea....if the charactors of the movie were christian then let them be christian in the movie. Hey to quote the media...if you don't like it...turn your TV off or don't go see the movie.

    April 12, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
  4. Reemo

    This article does raise a good point about how anti-Christian society has gotten lately. There are tons of mainstream movies where people praise Allah and Muhammed and no one cares because people see them to be on par with Zeus or Apollo. But movies have made obvious efforts to refrain from explicitly saying 'Jesus' in fear that the audience will interpret the movie as being a Christian movie.

    April 12, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  5. nobama

    Reading this blog just proves why our country is in the shape that it's in. People too often mistake "freedom of religion" as freedom to mock religion or freedom from religion. Even if you believe that nothing in the Bible actually happened, there are still valuable lessons to help you in life. I'm sure the same can be said for the Koran and other religious texts. If you think you have the world figured out all by yourself, you are sadly mistaken.

    April 12, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
  6. w7rkd

    From what I have read they went too righteious with the scripture quoting and who knows god and who doesn't. I'ts fine to depict how a persons faith guides them towards wisdom and making the right choices, but not right to speak down from a mountain top to small people through a movie. This movie's DOA.

    April 12, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  7. Dmoney

    "The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” Don't let your opinion of Christ be affected by "Christians". You wouldn't judge an entire race by one person, nor should you judge an entire religious group by those who confess with their mouth but their actions betray their words. If you find people who truly walk the steps as Jesus did, you may reexamine your belief about Christians. Or not.

    'For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes–so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them.' Matt. 13:15
    Nothing has changed since the days of Jesus. You can try and beat people over the head with Scripture, but that won't work. Love, good works, and the work of the Holy Spirit is the only thing that will change hardened hearts. So believers, try not to get in the way.

    April 12, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  8. ken

    Most of us don't have a personal relationship with the dead. Let alone the long dead and departed. But if you must...go to Talpiot and worship at the tomb of Jesus and his royal family found in 1982. His ossuary, his mothers, fathers, wifes, brothers and sons were entombed there and his dust dispersed in a field in 1983.

    April 12, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
  9. Jennifer

    "Hollywood screams for freedom of speech but only if you agree with them. It's a very two-faced industry."

    The faithful scream for freedom of speech yet try to censor anyone is not religious. They bring down the art displays in public museums (usually art they read about yet never go see themseves because they are too busy banning it like the small minded infants they are), They ban secular content from text books. They protest at movie theaters and protest when non Christians explore the history and culture of a faith in a secular and freedom of speech loving manner...They even show up at funerals and protest dead children. Where si the love for freedom of speech there sister sicko?

    This woman reallly has some cojones daming an industry for hypcorisy when her hypcritical kind can't stomach the expressions of anyone who thinks or feels differently from them. And this is why their ranks are shrinking. This is why churches are dying, because people are sick and tired of the faithful playing God in everyone else's lives.

    If anything, Hollywood was trying to open this film up to people whodo not wish to be preached at.

    April 12, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Pditty

      Ahh we are not saying you can't create art like that, just stop using our money to do it.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  10. Jennifer

    "Hollywood screams for freedom of speech but only if you agree with them. It's a very two-faced industry."

    The faithful scream for freedome of speech yet try to censor anyone is not religious. They bring down the art displays in public museums (usually art they read about yet never go see themseves because they are too busy banning it like the small minded infants they are), They ban secular content from text books. They even show up at funerals and protest dead children. This woman reallly has some cojones daming an industry for hypcorisy when her hypcritical kind can't stomach the expressions of anyone who thinks or feels differently from them. And this is why their ranks are shrinking. This is why churches are dying, because people are sick and tired of the faithful playing God in everyone else's lives.

    If anything, Hollywood was trying to open this film up to people whodo not wish to be preached at.

    April 12, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  11. tkdchick

    i truly dont understand why i even read the comments you people leave...if her faith in God is what brought her through this then who are ya'll to judge her for her faith, im sure not one person on here wants to be judged for their belief...and for the people who make fun of her for surfing again...seriously....if the wourld had more strong ambitious people like her than maybe we would be in better shape. i realize most of you on here just like to argue with someone, but do you need to do it by making fun and judging other people? no matter what your belief, God still loves each and everyone of you!

    April 12, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  12. JRinATL

    II wish I weren't surprised. I blame Hollywood to a degree but I wonder if Hollywood is merely mirroring some of the public's deep seated allergy's to all things they perceive as "religious" no matter how universal a theme in a movie that involves faith can be. Seeing a character in the movie say the word "Jesus" (rather than using it in vain, as we're more used to) was strange but maybe that's merely because Hollywood gives Christian faith such short shrift and we're all not used to it.
    The article's right though: the movie hardly is a "religious" movie constantly beating a Christian drumbeat. Would Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt have signed on if it were despite their careers being on something of a slide? I doubt it. And the very fact that the family had to continually battle with the producers to include verses supports that.
    While not an incredible movie, it is moving and the surfing scenes are very visually compelling. The final product may surprise you.

    April 12, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  13. EJ

    When you hear "Jesus", people will think you're getting preachy. And preachy is death to a film.

    April 12, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  14. Apocatequil

    I like the old Davey and Goliath specials

    April 12, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  15. Lizzy Taylor

    "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". – Sarh Hill

    And that children is exactly the type of stomach turning arrogance that p*sses me off when people of faith decide they and they alone decide who has a relationship with their maker and who does not. How the heck does this self centered idiot decide who is religious to walk in the light. That to me is the most perverse judgment of them all and it was Jesus who taught us not to judge.

    Christians of this ilk are not doing themselves anby favor every single time they pass jhudgment on others...yet never themselves.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Rick From Maryland

      "arrogant....people of faith"

      Hypocrite much?

      April 12, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • mel

      but it's like the only thing they're good at.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • Scott

      Well Lizzy, it was Jesus Christ Himself who said that He was the only way to a restored relationship with God. Those that do not believe on the Lord Jesus Christ are condemned already. It is not we Christians that decide anything. Our Lord told us to tell others about His redemptive work on Calvary but every time we try to you all cry "foul" yet you support the freedom of speech and of the press for Godless groups like PETA, Planned Parenthood, etc. One day. every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. (That includes you) ... My advice is to get it settled now. Trust the truth, forsake the lies, repent and ask Jesus Christ to forgive your sin and to save your soul.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • Anotherdayjustbelieve

      Lizzy,
      Yeah lol... I felt a knot in my stomach after reading that too lol... It sure was insensitive and definitely came across as "Holier than thou"... But allow me to apologize on behalf of all the Christians here!!!
      (It is NEVER our intention to stifle anyone's interest in seeking Christ!!!... but sometimes... we mistakenly "fall away from Grace" and take credit for "becoming saved" or having "this relationship" with Jesus, when in actuality it was really ALL God who gave us this "no-strings-attached GIFT" which none of us even remotely deserved)

      April 12, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
  16. El Duderino (if you're not into the whole brevity thing)

    I find a lot of strength and hope by following the teachings of The Dude (from The Big Lebowski). Google dudeism or go to dudeism dot com. You might just find what you're spiritually looking for.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  17. Brooks

    I do not care what people believe in – it is none of my business. In this country you have the right and the freedom to believe in whatever you want.
    That being said: religion, especially evangelical christianity is like a wiener.

    Its great to have one, its great to be proud of it.
    Just do not waive it around in public and don't try to shove it down my throat.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • mel

      perfect.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  18. A regular guy

    To American Girl - Thank you!

    April 12, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • AmericanGirl

      Your welcome, thank you! God Bless~

      April 12, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  19. Jez

    Studios are in the business of making money. Get over it.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  20. AmericanGirl

    This is totally awesome! There are so many comments, I had to keep scrolling down just to post mine. =)
    Just gonna throw some scripture out...
    Matt 5:11 God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in Heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way.
    When people get angry when the name of Jesus is mentioned it just reasures my faith in Him even more! People that have no love in there hearts when they hear the name of Jesus get so angry, because He throws us in purifying fire and into convinction, which cuts to the core like a double edged sword Untill we humble ourselves only then will we be truly set free!

    April 12, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • TRH

      You may worship (or not) any way you wish. Just keep it to yourself.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • I_BELIEVE

      RIGHT ON!

      April 12, 2011 at 5:37 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.