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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. mts

    Go stick your hand in a fire and think about how you are going to feel if you are wrong about God not being real. Look at the universe.........hard to imagine that all of the beauty that is in it, much less life, evolved from a big bang or whatever your belief on how the world got here is. I hope and pray that each of you that do not believe in Jesus at some point before His return or your death, sit down with a Bible and really think things through with an open mind, not for the sole purpose of thinking of new ways to belittle Christians and their faith. If then you still do not believe then please be kind enough to refrain from jumping in Christian business just to start an argument based on a science book that changes every year.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
    • Jesusfreakazoid

      God will make you burn in hell for all of eternity. Why? Because he loves you.

      April 12, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • Jason's Gay Lover

      Delusions do not require respect, nor do they deserve respect. Do you respect people who believe in the tooth fairy?

      April 12, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
    • Barnacle Bill

      Science books change every year, because new discoveries are made. Too bad your tiny little brain can't wrap itself around that concept.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • Reasonable Atheist

      Stick my hand in a fire? Really? All you are doing is showing off the oldest, (and unfortunately, the most effective)recruitment tool used by the faithful......FEAR. Do what I believe or you will burn.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
    • Hello

      Um, God doesn't put you in hell. He does, however, lovingly give you the freedom to choose for yourself whether or not you want to be in hell. What have you chosen?

      April 12, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
    • Rabbi Green

      If there is such a being, it would be beyond foolish to think of god as a manic simpleton, which is exactly what the bible does...

      April 12, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
    • Randall

      "refrain from jumping in Christian business"?
      There's the REALLY big problem with you so-called Christians. You believe that your claim to "THE TRUTH" invalidates everyone else's right to their own truth, or even their right to express their point of view. However, let a public school decide to teach scientific evolution without including Fairy Tale design, and every so-called Christian in shouting range of an internet connection goes postal shoving their opinion down everyone else's throat.
      Please don't insist that the rest of us accept your opinions because of what you find hard to imagine. A limited imagination is NOT a good selling point. Fortunately, unlike you, we do not have to rely ENTIRELY on our imaginations. We can actually look at the universe, use the brains and intelligence that evolution gave us, and understand what we are seeing right before us.
      I have no need for you or anyone else to pray that I believe in Jesus. I do believe in him, as a man that lived about 2000 years ago and had some interesting insights, and didn't live to see millions of fanatics turn his life and beliefs into what he would have considered blasphemy.
      Oh, and just a counter-suggestion to yours: if you stick your head up your butt for 5 minutes, you'll get to experience what will happen if YOU are wrong about the existence of god.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • pat

      It is refreshing to know that despite opposition from the "powers that be" (i.e.Sony), the Hamilton family is basically happy with the way the film turned out. As for the person who needs God to "regrow" Bethany's arm, I pray that our Lord will perform a miracle in your life and that you will come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. May God bless you and work on you in whatever ways are necessary to secure your salvation.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • Hello

      Randall wrote: "There's the REALLY big problem with you so-called Christians. You believe that your claim to "THE TRUTH" invalidates everyone else's right to their own truth, or even their right to express their point of view."

      ...he says while "invalidating" the "right" of Christians to their own "TRUTH". ROTFL!!

      Randall wrote: "However, let a public school decide to teach..."

      Let's take just that part without the evolution. Schools are there to educate, not to pontificate. Presenting all views and theories is education. Presenting one view to the exclusion of all others is pontificating. Liberals tend to force their agendas into schools where they can indoctrinate children into their liberal ideologies without parents being able to have their say. Why do you think so many Christians home school?

      And for your information, there are many Christians who believe in evolution, just not to the degree that many atheists do....it seems to be a dogmatic religion for many of them.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
    • Zoso

      You're an idiot. If you stick your hand in a fire it's going to burn, belief in a god or not. It's physics. And just how long ARE you tunnel-visioned people going to wait for a "return"? It's been over 2000 years already; maybe it's not going to happen. Wake up; the bible is just a STORY.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • E

      That the science books can change in an orderly fashion is a testament to the wisdom that is science.

      It is very unwise to reject an understanding of the universe your Father created for you.

      There is nothing spiritual to be gained in remaining ignorant of the sciences. You are in fact harboring a hatred that has no place in a Christian heart. God created the basis for science...the universe. By rejected science you are in effect rejecting his gift to all of us. Evolution does not disprove the existence of God, so why do you fight this ideological battle? Does God have to fit within a little box in order for you to believe He exists? God transcends anything our intellect can comprehend, but to understand His ways is certainly possible and definitely advisable. God made the universe predictable, logical and mathematical for a reason...do not be so stubborn as to ignore something so obvious.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
    • Science?

      Hey Bill.. Science books change every year.. I'll give you that one, but they often change because the information is WRONG. Think Pluto.. or many of the other instances where science has taken a step back.. You know science books have been around since people thought the world was flat too.. You can have your science book. I'll take fact over conjecture any day..

      April 12, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
    • Observer

      Science makes every effort to know as much as possible and adjust if necessary. The 2,000-year-old Bible makes no adjustments. That's why it supports slavery and the inferiority of women.

      April 12, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
  2. twiddly

    "...they don't have a personal relationship with Jesus..."

    Hey, I have a personal relationship with a pink unicorn. That's way cooler!
    (and just as real)

    April 12, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
  3. jim

    Came to see a movie ... had to listen to all the nuts (from all sides of the aisle) discussing a few lines from the movie. If y'all are that bored, I'm sure there's a food pantry or soup kitchen or homeless shelter looking for some volunteer help. Get off your padding and go be useful.

    Perfect example: @TexAnne: It's "or what?" If you're going to diss people at least consult a grammer book. Sheesh.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
  4. Nick

    Of course it's tough to get a Christian movie made by a j e w studio.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
  5. Jack

    A movie like this one can't say the name Jesus? I hear the name "Jesus" and "Jesus Christ" in just about every movie I see. Perhaps some consistancy is needed or a lack of hipocracy.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
  6. surf city SC

    The two biggest problems facing this world are over population and organized religions, period:

    April 12, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
    • jross

      Nuclear meltdowns?

      April 12, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
  7. JC

    Two things..every notice that these stories about religion are always the most commented on or so it seems. Pretty cool. Wish the average person was as engaged in every part of their life and.......its a story, a movie, not a crusade.

    I applaud her Faith and support her conviction in believing something so strongly in a world that seems to blow like the wind.

    No pity parties with this girl! Way to go

    April 12, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
  8. dave

    i saw the movie last week and it was pretty good. i might even see it again to show my christian support. a few things bother me but it is not exactly what is in the movie but what it is the old adage that actions speak louder then words. now im not that bitter at carrie underwood turning me down for a date when she was single for she got married and its all good now but when i saw her kissing that olds 'rock god' ( as she calle dhim) i forget his name but it to me it was bozo the clown, i could not help but think how many hot christian guys would pay a months wage to kiss carrie on the lips, then for a a old rock dude who is known for some sort of demon voice ( i rushed through the article and forgot his nick name) im pretty sure the heart of Jesus was stabbed deeply at that point. for any christian, this life is hard and the world does put us on a higher standard and that is why we are called hypocrites all the time, deal with it , its true we are put on display on a higher standard. even the Bible calls us to a very high standard even to the point of taking up the cross and following Jesus ( taking up the cross is liken to saying take up your electric chair, Jesus is that serious and the temptations we face can only be solved by taking it seriously) . but when i saw carrie joke about that "making out" on the ellen show my heart too was pained within me for she is an example for many christian girls...whether she wants that job or not, God blessed her with much and now much is expected of her. the problem lies within the brain for we are told a wishy washy lukewarm belief and we think that others can come to Jesus in the same lukewarmness- this is not true at all. the christian life is a narrow road, with many trial according to Jesus. Then anna sophia robb stating that she likes harry potter, now im not bitter at hefor i didnt ask her out yet but come on people! did we forget that there is a devil that is trying to send the world to hell using witchcraft, and any dark forces or spells he can dazzle people with. the word 'Pharmacy ' in greek means 'witch craft' for back in ancient times the witches would conjure up potions that drugged people into a trance, same today the drugs do not really help but they make your mind go off into a different place and this whole freakin world is controlled by the "prince of the power of the air" . in other words, there are spiritual battles being fought right now in the heavenlies and we can not pretend that everything is ok. so take Jesus serious for this aint no sunday picnic and if we really spoke what was in the bible the world would not blow kisses at us, they would hate us. so the question is why are we ashamed of saying what Jesus said?

    April 12, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • jross

      Oh buddy. So stop taking the drugs...

      April 12, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • jg

      how many so-called christians go to the "Magic Kingdom" regularly?

      April 12, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
    • kim

      wow, Dave, step away from the Kool-Aid stand and LISTEN to yourself--and then THINK for yourself. you are missing a big, beautiful, multi-cultured world out here and you're stuck inside the church. i just picture this sad kid stuck on the sidelines of life watching everyone else LIVE while you worry about devils and wizardry! it's actually really sad.

      i HOPE it's drugs and not that you believe all that kookiness. live your life for YOU,

      April 12, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
  9. truthmusic2

    I was thinking of watching this movie but now that I know it has scripture I will not. Saying God is fine but when you bring scripture into it and use the word jesus it just makes it creepy. When my ears hear jesus it is the equivalent of my eyes seeing defecation.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • max

      you have some serious psychological issues that you need to get help for. you're a sick and twisted individual, most likely a danger to yourself and others

      April 13, 2011 at 12:16 am |
  10. meggan

    I'm not religious. However, I am also not anti-religion. The two are not synonymous. I think having a reference to her religion just makes sense. It was important to her. HOWEVER – you will lose A LOT of people (aka $$$) if the movie is too religious – it just turns people off. I think the studios struck a good balance.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • jross

      OMG. Finally someone with plain old common sense. Best post on here.

      April 12, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  11. Glenn

    Christians have been persecuted, killed, and insulted for 2000 years, since Roman times, and even today, especially in the Middle East, China, etc. . Just live and let live and be tolerant of others so lets back off from hating and attacking Christians and focus on more important issues.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
  12. thisisforhatemail

    Funniest part of all the comments is everyone preaching the Gospel like anyone here cares but other Christians. You aren't changing anyone's mind. No one is listening. Go back to watching TBN.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
  13. walker

    You wouldn't bash her, but you bash the Savior who died on the cross for your sins? Isn't that stu.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  14. swohio

    I think it's astonishing that many producers in Hollywood seem to balk at mentioning Jesus in a movie, yet they have no qualms about letting a charater utter "Jesus Christ" as an expression of frustration, as though it's profanity.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  15. RP

    It is interesting to read all of the comments that have bible scriptures. Thank you for reading what you want to push on us (non-believers) and not read what you don't want to hear. I bet all of your bibles have a lot of holes in them. You are more than willing to read John 3:16 and 1 Corinthians 13:4 but what about 1 John 5:17, which talks about sin. "All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death." I never hear that shouted at me when im walking down the boardwalk. It is also interesting that there is not one historical book, other than the bible, that talks jesus even existing. If there is, let me know. You are not "tollerant" of us non believers because your bible TELLS you to go out in the world and preach the good word. Its not the words that turn us off from the message, it's your tact. Change your tact and we night change our minds. or not.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • jg

      the complete works of Josephus; "Antiquities of the Jews" ch.3, page 379. read this and i'll give you others

      April 12, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
    • kim

      RP, that's a really interesting-yet totally obvious-point. the bible being the only book to mention jesus, in a time when all there was for communication besides word-of-mouth was books.

      i also believe that we should all believe-or not believe--in whatever works for us. if it's jesus, buddha, allah, or a pink sparkly unicorn, whatever we need to feel peace and calm inside and to treat each other with respect, compassion and kindness. i'm more christian that MANY christians i know--and certainly better than all those pretend christians in D.C. i'm probably closest to being a buddhist, but only to the point that i think we should ALL strive to be better human beings who treat ourselves and everyone else with respect. and i would bet anything that if you went back in time, and if you found "jesus" or the "jesuses", he/they would feel the same way. and he/they would weep at the ugly anger and manipulation done in "his" name.

      just live by the golden rule and forget about all the other nonsense about walking on water and coming back to life. respect the man and be a GOOD person! The End.

      there, now i've just saved you from a lifetime of church on sundays--JUST BE NICE TO EACH OTHER!!!!!

      April 12, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
    • john

      you could prove the existence of Jesus, just as much as you could prove the existence of socrates, confucius or george washington. all we have to notify us of their existence is what other people wrote about them and what they said or did. why is that more sufficient proof?

      April 13, 2011 at 12:14 am |
  16. hmmm...

    Why can't the truth of the story just be told, and have people decide for themselves if the story is offensive to their personal beliefs in any way instead of making decisions for people as to how they will respond to "scripture being cited or spoken in the movie"??? We (as in Hollywood, media, writers, directors, labels, etc...) like to push lots of different agendas that take religious, political or social form, but when it comes to a Christian agenda, there is so much hype and hypocrisy.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
  17. stu

    that said, if she feels good believing in Jeebus, that's fine by me. I won't watch the movie, but I won't bash her for looking for something to hold on to, no matter how silly I think it is.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • john

      despite your subtle, offensive attempt at wit (epic fail), I respect your stance on the issue

      April 13, 2011 at 12:10 am |
  18. stu

    wonder if these scenes get so much support from the religious nuts if Ms. Hamilton is a Muslim... I think not.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
  19. mymilkshake

    got to love how the people that make up 80% of the US population go on and on about being "persecuted". Get over it. It is the other 20% of us that would be able to have any claim at all to that description – thankfully the first amendment still exists (as long as we can keep the theocratic wing of the Republican party from ignoring or repealing it).

    April 12, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
    • mom of 2

      I'm sorry you were forced at gun point to see this movie. You're right no one should make you read this article (that's obviously about something you don't believe in) and then to have to write a comment about it too...so unfair.

      April 12, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
    • Skippy

      dude, i live in the south now, most of the christians here are democrats and just as vocal.

      April 12, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
    • john

      your milkshake brings nothing but ignorance and stupidity...and boys to your yard, you sick pedophile

      April 13, 2011 at 12:09 am |
  20. hmwallace

    This is so ridiculous. If scripture was read and spoken then it should be in the movie or it no longer becomes a true story.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • Enjay Sea

      Actually, it's not a ridiculous concern at all. Now that I know the movie is about religion, I'll never bother seeing it. And there are many, many people just like me who don't want to be preached to by the gullible. The studios know that, and they're goal is to make money. So their concerns are justfied.

      April 12, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
    • RealityChecker

      "And there are many, many people just like me"

      You said the same thing about Passion of the Christ. And it made $600 million without a dime from you. Looks like you are not needed. At all.

      April 12, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
    • Enjay Sea

      Not a problem realityChecker. Christians have made it clear for 2000 years that non-believers are not needed. At all. Luckily I live in a free world where I am now allowed to reject them without getting burned at the stake.

      April 12, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
    • twiddly

      Hey, I have a personal relationship with a pink unicorn, which is way cooler! And... it's just as real.

      April 12, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
    • kim

      i'm with Enjay. my kids really want to see this, but as soon as i read about all the christian stuff it completely turned me off. i respect that her strong faith got her through this, but i would not go if if it had a bunch of bible stuff in it.

      i was very releived to see at the end that jesus is only mentioned twice, an i can deal with a bible quote here or there. but the studio DEFINITELY made the right call, they would have turned off the majority of their audience if they made it too religious.

      April 12, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
    • Mike

      The movie should depict the true events bottom line, if she used her faith to overcome a obstacle then show that nothing more nothing less. I see no problem with that. But sadly in modern times, no one can tell the truth if it offends another group of people. Only in American can political correct speech rule supreme. Come on, are people really this sensitive to everything? that can't even open there minds to a movie? Sad times.

      April 12, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • k

      kim you're just foolish and self-centered. call me the day when a movie studio calls you and asks you what you'd like to see in a movie. movies are stories, this is a movie about this girl's story, if christianity played an integral role in her story, then it should be in the movie. simple as that. if you think movies about true stories should be edited to fit your tastes, you really need to get over yourself. if you don't like the true story of this girl's life and the role that her faith has played in it, don't go see the movie about the true story of this girl's life and the role that her faith has played in it.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:07 am |
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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.