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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. Sam

    OMG i read this book when i was in 5th grade this was a amazing movie and book!!!!!!

    April 12, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  2. mer

    so much hate, pretty sad, dont' you have anything better to do then hate..why are there so many angry people, you'd think the shark bit them. wow.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
  3. SaneAtheist

    Seriously though we shouldn't be "marketing" movies or dvds or anything that is dubious confirmation to these believers in "gods" , it's assisting them in deluding themselves , instead we need to be smacking them into reality. It's time we stop molly coddling these delusional people and start educating them in science , world religions, (that definitely includes the origin of their own religion and it's holy book) and philosophy , Also if you're a Christian I think it should be mandatory that you read the Bible, that'll make about half of them atheists right off the bat.

    April 12, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  4. RealSoulSurfer

    This really cracks me up...Patrick Swayze was able to spout all sorts of pop-culture Zen stuff all through the movie Point Break (much of it true)...Will Smith went on a number of mystical tirades in The Legend of Bagger Vance (also making many good points)...heck, even ol' Yoda communed with the Force through his (albeit latex) body in Star Wars (nothin more to say, Yoda rocks). But these were all OK, because they were alternative, counterculture views of spirituality. However, when you promote a mainstream (ie "Christian") view of the world, and demonstrate how it has real, tangible, measurable, and positive effects in the lives of those who participate in this lifestyle, and all of a sudden, you are shoving something down everyone’s narrow lil' agnostic windpipe? Why not just take off the blinders and see it as a beautiful story of someone discovering something very real on a higher plain? Why not just be inspired instead of getting so defensive? Why not do something legitimately counterculture and give this crazy Jesus stuff a try...you might like it. Or just take five minutes and Google “Pascal’s Wager”…food for real thinkers..

    April 12, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  5. RealSoulSurfer

    This really cracks me up...Patrick Swayze was able to spout all sorts of pop-culture Zen stuff all through the movie Point Break (much of it true)...Will Smith went on a number of mystical tirades in The Legend of Bagger Vance (also making many good points)...heck, even ol' Yoda communed with the Force through his (albeit latex) body in Star Wars (nothin more to say, Yoda rocks). But these were all OK, because they were alternative, counterculture views of spirituality. However, when you promote a mainstream (ie "Christian") view of the world, and demonstrate how it has real, tangible, measurable, and positive effects in the lives of those who participate in this lifestyle, and all of a sudden, you are shoving something down everyone’s narrow lil' agnostic windpipe? Why not just take off the blinders and see it as a beautiful story of someone discovering something very real on a higher plain? Why not just be inspired instead of getting so defensive? Why not do something legitimately counterculture and give this crazy Jesus stuff a try...you might like it. Or just take five minutes and Google “Pascal’s Wager”…food for real thinkers.

    April 12, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
  6. Thom

    I'm a dye in the wool atheist, but if a person's faith, irregardless believe it or not, plays an important role in their life story and you're telling that story it should be left in. If your belief in something is so fragile that a movie about a girl who against all odds sways your belief then you really didn't truly believe in the first place. I wouldn't want to see belief in God or Jesus removed from this story any more then I would like to see it added into the Penn Jillette or James Randy story.

    April 12, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
    • Thom

      *self correction* that should read – irregardless if I believe it or not

      April 12, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
  7. WOBH

    I'm an athiest but what do they want? Do they want to tell that girl's story or do they want to create a fictional character? If her faith was part of the story (and evidently it was) then leave it in.

    The problem is that the Christian movie market is not as big as the mainstream audience.... it's all about attracting the mainstream and therefore making the bucks. But then again Passion of Christ was a huge money maker and did attract a huge Christian audience

    April 12, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
  8. Manny

    What an ugly mug, the shark should have bitten her face off instead.

    April 12, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
  9. Flyspghetti

    Pastafarianiasm is the only TRUE way to salvation. Deal with it.

    April 12, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
  10. surfer4life

    None of these posts are related to the article.
    Everyone starts arguing and nobody stops to appreciate the accomplishments of Bethany Hamilton.

    No matter what your faith is, we can all learn something from the character Bethany shows. She has overcome enormous adversity, kept a good spirit, and affected many people with her testimony. If everyone could do a fraction of the good she has, the world would be a better place.

    April 12, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
    • W.Jeffs

      Well said. She appears to be an incredible young lady.

      Prophet

      April 12, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
  11. SaneAtheist

    Sounds like a lot of fuss for a film that is going right into the bargain bin at the Wal-Mart checkout counter. I was bored just reading about this movie.

    April 12, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
    • Jesuslovesmargaritas

      It will do well at the Wal-Mart checkout counter. Have you seen the people in there?

      April 12, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
  12. asdf

    Long live the sky fairy. Please save me from going to some imaginary place under ground.

    April 12, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  13. asdf

    Spirituality though silly to some wouldn't be so bad if it didn't so often lead to religion and then worse of all dogma.

    April 12, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  14. Jon Davidson

    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," said Kevin Sorbo...

    I'm an atheist, and I think that is ridiculous. If the real-like person turned to the bible and this is her story, whether she became a Christian, Muslim or Hindu, and it is part of her biography, then put it in! People are going to know about it before they even see the movie, if they know anything about her. Are you so afraid of alienating ANYONE, that no truthful biographical story can be told? (Unfortunately, we all know that answer to that).
    How about a story about Cat Steven's life, but the word "Mohammad" can't be used? How would that fly?

    For God's sake...... (no irony intended).

    April 12, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  15. GianCarlo

    You Christians say that you are not all the same. Well why don't you stand up to those Christian rights that are part of the RepubliKKKan party and say that they don't represent you, that you are not a hate based intolerant Jesus loving people. Why don't you stand up to them. Talk is cheap. These movies are all about money. Just like the Justine Beaber movie, he was potrayed as a Jesus loving little boy, just so the movie could make millions. Come on people wake up! That kid only see's money in his eyes.

    April 12, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  16. Your full of It

    It's funny how people who don't believe in religion or a god agree that this story should be censored by Hollywood yet if you were to try and censor their mean spirited comments they would be up in arms. Can you say HYPOCRITES? I knew you could...

    April 12, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
    • Francis1

      I am an atheist & I don't think it should have been censored. Unlike religious people, I do not fear the other side: I will debate you all day about the non-existence of God. You do not threaten me because eventually atheists will be proven correct. If you look at history, once religions quit killing nonbelievers, religion has had to continually change its teachings to fit reality. Hopefully audiences ask themselves this question: What kind and loving God would have a shark bite off the arm of a thirteen-year-old girl?

      April 12, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • kaune

      Hollywood isn't trying to censor any Jesus reference. Hollywood just wants to sell tickets. Hollywood knows that the more Jesus is promoted in the movie, the fewer non-Jesus people (like oh, say, me) will go. Leaving out Jesus is a business decision.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
  17. Big~Smelly~Tuna

    thank you jesus ` that was so nice of you to have that shark rip off my arm.
    thank you thank you thank you
    ...
    glazed over reborns

    April 12, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
    • jade lee

      Your comment shows your complete lack of understanding of the meaning of Christianity. I feel very sorry for you that you can't see the bigger picture. She lost an arm, but gained so much more, which I am sure that she would attest too.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • gimpy

      So- if she lost (got it ripped off her body) an arm AND a leg she would have gotten even more? Hey Jesus– put me down for all four and call me first base!

      April 12, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
    • paulm5545

      Ah, but perhaps it wasn't Jesus who had the shark take off her arm. There is that nasty ol' fella called Satan.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • copanut

      Seems a bit drastic, don't you think? Couldn't she have learned just as much by maybe having her arm partially severed and then miraculously healed after a month of incantations to Jesus? Or heck, wouldn't we all learn a lot if Jesus would simply regenerate that missing limb for her?

      Or perhaps there is a reason why real miracles like that never happen in the real world, and can happen only in the pages of musty old books that lack any credible corroboration.

      April 12, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
  18. m

    There are no gods there never were any gods. Only frightened ego driven morons think there ever were. How stupid can you be? Never mind, I Know the answer....

    April 12, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • Your full of It

      Luckily not as stupid as you, moron....

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

      you sound like you have quite the ego yourself.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
    • hanna

      "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."

      April 12, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  19. SavedSinner

    Jesus: a name that is still too dangerous to mention!

    April 12, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • asdf

      What are you talking about? Jesus is my mexican gardener and I speak his name often.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
    • Jesuslovesmargaritas

      you talking to me

      April 12, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
  20. cary lacayo

    It's not by coincidence that the name of "JESUS" is cast down, but it's totally cool to say "God". Due to the fact that it is JESUS who died on the cross for us, paying the penalty for our sins and rising from the dead. Also because it is JESUS who said," I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through Me." Many people say they know God, but few stand tall and admit they know JESUS CHRIST...

    I am so glad that this awesome surfer girl is speaking out on how she loves her savior JESUS CHRIST, even if the movie doesn't want to share it openly on behalf of what is politically correct. Check her out for real at – Iamsecond.com – where her and others are sharing who they are in JESUS CHRIST. Celebrities/famous people who have recognized the truth in JESUS CHRIST.

    Be open and just look at the person of JESUS CHRIST...Whatya got to lose? Are you really that sure of yourself to deny him? He is right there along side you, as you read this...It's not about religion, but a relationship with JESUS CHRIST the Messiah, the savior of the world who hears your voice when you speak to Him. He loves you, He died for you...

    April 12, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • copanut

      I don't mean to denigrate you personally, really I don't. If the Jesus fantasy works for you, that's not a problem for me. However, I have no interest in paying $10 to see a movie that will preach to me. Millions of viewers feel the same way, and that's why the producers had to be careful. It's simple economics. The producers are under no obligation to lose millions of dollars merely to make Christians feel good.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • bl

      I have nothing to lose from 'finding' religion? How about my gay friends, divorced friends or atheist friends. Who knows. What I'm certain of is that I definitely have nothing to gain from religion. I already play by modern society's rule book and am happy for my time alive to share with family/friends. Who on earth is Jesus to tell me anything different?

      April 12, 2011 at 5:50 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.