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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. truthinrock

    I'm glad I found this out before I spent my money to see this movie! I grew up in the surf and was a surfer for most of my early years and I was psyched to see a surfing movie but now that I know it's a bunch of bible thumpers, I'm totally turned off!!

    April 12, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
    • Lycidas

      You can't be a surfer with that kind of mind set.

      April 12, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
    • chris

      Me too!!!

      April 12, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
    • B-Dog

      Maybe a little more time in English class, and a little less time in the water or at bible study. JS... Just Sayin.

      "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"

      Me and the director?? She sounds like a moron.

      April 12, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
    • rafael

      You can't be a surfer with the mindset that someone else can't be a surfer.

      April 12, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
    • lynn

      How wonderful to think that this movie shows faith in action! How wonderful to know that real people are led and touched by a real God who understands our sorrows. How perfect to express it in the scripture that reminds us that He has plans to bless and prosper our lives in all situations through the love of Jesus.

      April 12, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
    • PhxLuke

      Why does it matter if the girl is a Christian? Does her faith make her story any less meaningful?

      April 12, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
    • Guin

      I disagree. I have no great love for "bible thumpers" either. But this IS her story. If that's what sustained her, then that's what sustained her.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • John

      @B-Dog: You're criticizing English skills, yet you use "Just Sayin"? In what dictionary would I find the word "Sayin"? That, and you sued a comma incorrectly in your first sentence. So, maybe you should spend a little more time proof-reading your own poor writing skills before slamming that of others.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
    • jason

      ya and it's that exact mindset that makes that shows people are turning away from the faith and the Lord . It doesn't sell???? is that all they care about is selling ? screw morals? screw beliefs? we just want what sells? Even if faith was a part of this girls story they want to black that part out and rearrange it to what sells .So when all of the sudden did Jesus become a bad word in need of censorship? If someone doesnt want faith shoved down there throats at a movie >..well don't buy a ticket to that movie ..plain and simple ..no one is being forced here. It sick to see so many in this world turning their backs on God. but it's been written that it would happen and it's also been written at what will come for those who have. look araound at how God and anything to do with god and jesus has been stripped away from everything more and more , No religious symbols on public properties, they want in god we trust off our currencies, they took under God out of the pledge of allegence, in some places you can't read your bible in school , in some areas you can't even read your bible on public transport. the list goes on and on with this war waged against God and faith and you have to wonder whats the hidden power driving this war....

      April 12, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
    • Mel

      Really? Really?

      April 12, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
  2. Curt

    It is funny and sad how bigoted Hollywood is. They are so afraid of religion and at the same time they want to silence it. It would be nice if they could tell a story without trying to change it. Especially when it is a story about God.

    April 12, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
  3. sirlaurel

    Wow!! All this over saying Jesus two times. If it is her story then it should reflect whom SHE is not who Hollywood thinks she should be. If you don't like her views then don't buy the rights to the story and give them editorial control. On the subject of my personal relationship with the Lord, it is just that it is my personal relationship. Everyone has a different interaction with The Christ. If you don't have one, that is between you and God, I hope that Lord will reach out to you. Just remember this, you have to ask for forgiveness in order to recieve it. From God or any one else for that matter.

    April 12, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
  4. Suz

    This whole comment section personifies what I find so appalling about "Christians"...Anger, anger, anger....my way or the highway.

    April 12, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
  5. Barry D.

    When I go to the movies, I'm bombarded with commerical messages that keep preaching to me that i'm not good enough, to buy more materialistic stuff, and to buy buy buy...purchase...consume. I'm confused how people have accepted this new god - this new religion that is constantly prosytelized into our faces and pervades our lives - yet some producers freak out that a couple of lines from Christianity are spoken? Perhaps the producers would have also liked LIndsay Lohan, riddled on drugs in real life, to play a lead role? You know, to be the role model for generations to come Get real. America really is on it's way down.

    April 12, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
  6. Cuss

    “After all the back and forth – and there’s always back and forth – it’s always best to air on the side of authenticity,” said Michael Flaherty

    I'll bet Michael said, "err on the side of authenticity," the reporters ears just needed a spell check. doh!

    This article seems to be a ruse to get those Christians not usually disposed to attend a movie out to the theatre, there are those that believe a ticket to the cinema is also a one way ticket to Hell. And,

    American Arab, it seems to me that any attempt to water down religion was more economic than political.

    April 12, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
  7. Tim

    Damn god smookers! I thought the movie was a girl who gets her arm eaten by a shark.no wonder it failed at the box office.

    April 12, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
  8. NotSeeingThisMovie

    Well the Producers were right. That's one movie I won't be seeing.

    April 12, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
  9. cdeitrich

    Try being a Wiccan sometime, where every single media portrayal of your faith is of a goth-styled teenage sociopath.

    April 12, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
    • Hello

      But isn't every "Wiccan" a goth-styled teenage sociopath? LOL.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
  10. snowsurfer

    Hmm too bad...not watching a christian surfing movie. So...the shark was god will right? Surf is way cool... religion is a stupid excuse..

    April 12, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
  11. Ken

    I really don't see a problem with watching this movie no matter if you are a Christian, Jewish, Muslim or any other faith or even someone who does not believe at all. Proclaiming you will not see a movie because it does not happen to agree with your personal belief is very narrow minded. This after all is not just the story of religion. You are NOT going to see passion of the Christ here. This is the story of a young lady who faced a dire situation and overcame it over great odds. People do that with or without the bible. The point I'm trying to make here is that she is a very inspiring person who did not give up no matter what to achieve her dreams. It doesn't matter if she used faith in God, or faith in science to achieve this. If your atheist and see this movie, you don't have to agree that she used faith to help her get through her tough times. After all, its not your faith, it's hers. It would be the same as if someone saw a psychiatrist to get over an issue. Are you going to not see this film because you think that Jesus will be crammed down your throat? No one is forcing anyone to believe. If you see the movie, see it for the amazing comeback this kid had. I swear, saying you won't see a movie based on the fact there is a little religion in it is like...lame. I would love my kids to see this because it shows the courage this girl had to overcome some pretty major obstacles. I want them to know this message if nothing else.

    April 12, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
    • Melissa

      Well said Ken. That was a good way to put it

      April 12, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
  12. palle

    you have a lot of misunderstanding about the bible, it is a good thing you try to be a more caring person.
    but it is just commond sense, of course you need to love your next man, but you have also to respects his opinions.
    and be fair. and lissen to his explanations.
    do the bible talk about evolution or creatism? no it have 3 different ways of how life coulde have been created, but it does not tell you how god did it, and the way the bible put it up is like I don't know how it all happenet, but here is tree different way it might have happened. well none of them are true. if you look at it in histories, most of them, who sayes evolution is false, don't know what evolution is about.

    if god really is good, and my life depend on believing in god, then why does he hide away from me? the conclusion is god is not good or he does not eksist.

    so what is god really? it is sayet he have all ways been here, but in the beginning here was nothing, so god is nothing, and it actualy make sense if you look at the rest of the bible words. the emptyness up in the air is gods kingdom, and earth is there satan is supose to be, nothinness have allwayes been, before time and will be after time.
    in the beginning here was nothing and nothing became everything, there for nothing is god 😉
    before you was born, you was nothing(with god) and then you die, you will become nothing again(with god again).
    wel ateist just don't believe nothiness have godly powers. but what ever happening, we will all become nothing then we die 😉

    April 12, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
  13. Bob

    I'm a rationalist myself, but it's not my story, is it? It's Bethany Hamilton's story, and if her faith is central to her recovery and her life, why do so many want to whitewash that fact? If the idea that a girl credits her God with helping her overcome a tremendous hardship is so unpalatable, then don't see the movie. As much as I don't believe in a celestial puppet master, it's a pretty inspiring story.

    April 12, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
  14. ijreilly

    Now, if she would have prayed and THEN regrew her arm overnight, I would reconsider my position. Seriously, that's all he would have to do and I'd believe in him. But no, he wants me to go off what a bunch of bronze aged tribesman scribbled (barely) 2000 years ago in one of the most illiterate obscure parts of the middle east and then test me to see if I buy it. If i don't, then I deserve to be tortured endlessly for it. Yeah, that definitely sounds like unconditional love.

    April 12, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • solarlady

      Well said!!!

      April 12, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
    • E

      So you'll only believe in God if he will be your cosmic concierge?

      There would be nothing interesting to live for if God let us have our way with everything. There can be no free will without consequences. There can be no exhilaration of success without failure. There can be no joy of healing without the threat of death and maiming. Life in a world where all is well with a single prayer is ironically a hell...a very, very boring place to live, with a total absence of free will.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
    • Hello

      Um.... We're talking about Christians, and Jesus wasn't around in the Bronze age. If you don't think "Love your neighbor like yourself" is a 'good' teaching worth following, then I'm not sure I'd want to know what you follow in life.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  15. tony

    When is this Magic Belief Blog going to get shut down. It belongs in a Church, not a "news" organization – not even one as incompetent as this.

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

      When is atheism going to go away? The best of thinkers down through the generations have rejected atheism for its distinct lack of morality, and even if atheism could find some overarching morality they'd have nothing to enforce it. Atheism, as it is today, has turned into a tool for blind egotists to spout off about reason that the majority of them lack.

      I assume there are a few ignorant Atheists laughing at my claim that the best of thinkers down through the generations have rejected atheism, so it is time for them to learn a little:

      Francis Bacon, founder of modern scientific method:
      "It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion."

      April 12, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
    • E

      Oh, so you're one of THOSE kinds of atheists.

      The removal of all references to religion is itself an act of the establishment of religion. You are asking for something that is hypocritical, and you are too much of a fool to even see the irony.

      Get over yourself and stop crying about other people's beliefs, it's NOT all about you whinerheimer.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
  16. Lori

    It continues to amaze me that films CAN have lack of standards, morals, and faith repeatedly. But, CAN'T have standards, morals, and faith without a battle.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • Barnacle Bill

      You mean they lack YOUR standards, self righteousness and morals. Stop trying to force your morals down my throat.

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

      You got that one backwards, see, Bill. See, your values in Hollywood are being forced down the throats of the religious. So, perhaps you should stop forcing your views upon us and allow us to express our views once in a blue moon.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
  17. bob cecil

    Change only the words "god" "Jesus" "bud-ha" "Muhammad" etc etc in all religious books like the Koran, bible etc to "mankind"
    and they all read much better and are now completely true. There have been 2879 official gods in mankind's history, but only one mankind.. Hmm-mm????

    April 12, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • minticecream

      Just so you know, Christianity is the ONLY religion to have a savior who is LIVING today, who conquered death, and is the only religion that, instead of telling you what YOU must do to get somewhere in the afterlife, you don't have to do a thing. Someone who loved you SO MUCH already did that for you. You just gotta believe.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
    • minticecream

      Ps, no they don't read much better. I don't think I can say that "mankind" died for all of mankind. Mankind is way to selfish and greedy on its own to do anything close to that.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
    • Gustavo

      There is only one God my friend, just 2879 views or interpretations of him. God is God, no matter what name you use.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
  18. Kathy

    I'm glad to see Bethany isn't afraid to profess her faith in Christ, this movie was about "her" which no doubt revolved around her faith through the whole ordeal...God bless you Bethany

    April 12, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
  19. tony

    All Konservatives Kristians Know that peopleborn in Hawaii are not US citizens, and are secretly Wicked Muslims.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • chvinson10

      you spelled christians wrong stupid

      April 12, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
  20. DCFROMCT

    This is what is so sad about Hollywood. It's an amazing story of a real life event – Sony wants to make money off of the story but doesn't want to be true to the people the story is about. If the Hamilton's faith is a major part of their family and is what helped them get through this ordeal then it should be displayed as such. If they use Jesus' name, then the movie should as well – that would make the movie authentic. If Sony was not willing to show the family as they are then they shouldn;t have taken on the film. Without that authenticity it will lose it's appeal to both secular and faith based audiences.

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

      I don't buy it. I think the marketeers worked their magic. To get a bigger audience, you must create controvercy. Think about it; with 70% of Americans claiming to be Christian, how can you get them to go to the movie? Tell them that the powers to be tried to surpress their beliefs!

      April 12, 2011 at 7:18 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.