'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. But Seriously

    F#&in' Tiger Sharks, how do they work? It's like a tiger and a shark mixed together to create some awesome SyFy channel original movie.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
    • gsperson

      I don't think it's SyFy. It's like a Hawaiian religious thing. The partial morphing of a tiger into a shark is supposed to be a gift from the Nothing God – Jack Lord.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:20 pm |
  2. Linnea

    I think it's fine to bring her faith into the film as long as it is done in a genuine manner. If they try to overplay it just to appeal to the evangelical crowd, it'll flop. Audiences can smell an inauthentic portrayal a mile away.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
    • athought

      @linnea I think evangelicals are the ones who most liekly went and saw the movie in the first weekend. To some extent, people like true faith stories. People are looking for answers right now during some troubling times. Obama wasn;t what many hoped he would be. Turning to Him is what he wants. My point: Probably a good time for hollywood to start playing to that crowd, whch is the opposite of what of what they have beend doing.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:51 pm |

    @ CNN blog coordinator

    Everyone is posting their posts, but they are getting so scattered that no one is able to know which reply belongs where ! Unless this is fixed I suggest that people stop posting on CNN's blogs. This is embarrassing!

    If you do reply to someone, how much effort does it take to type "@ their name"? Use your brains a little, people!

    April 12, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
  4. Get a Grip

    People: Judge not and you shall not be judged. Trust that her experience of faith and understanding is real and true for her. This is her life's path, and as such she has come to the realization of it. Please do not let your resistance to "religious" things in the media blind you to a greater truth. I speak from a place of a broader understanding of spirit and reality... Please open your hearts and celebrate her brave journey... for one day soon you may be on a journey of your own....

    April 12, 2011 at 10:32 pm |
  5. Harvey Rogers

    You go Beth. Destiny is part of what is in your hands.
    All the best Beth,

    April 12, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
  6. elliemae

    I wonder if they realize how consdescending they sound when they say, "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." We have war, bgitory, and hatred in this world because so many people assume that their version of a relationship with God and their savior/prophet is the only valid one. Such people are not part of the solution. I will pray for them.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
    • Weep4America

      @elliemae – And yet you fail to see that your comments are just like the ones you complain about. You don't see how self-righteous your comments really are. You speak just like the Pharisees did.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:58 pm |
  7. Chris

    It was the power of Jesus that got her through tough times!

    Praise Jesus!

    April 12, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
    • thereverend

      Grilled cheesus.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:46 pm |
  8. markx64

    I cant believe this movie beat out "your highness". The trailer looked hilarious, it will be the comedy of the year, if not the decade. (its tough to sell sarcasm on the internet)

    April 12, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
  9. Obama

    Kiss my Butkus. Vote for me in 2012!

    April 12, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
  10. EL Rey Tiburon

    your one tough gal to survied A Shark Bite By King Of Sharks The Great White and your move rocks i wish the best keep surffing just rember when you surf your not alone the king shark is lurking in shadows. good luck in all you do.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
  11. tallulah13

    If they're going to tell the story, they should tell it as it happened. If she's a religious person, then that should be shown. The truth is the truth and shame on movie makers who change it for their own reasons. However, I would find it sad if they gave all the credit of her recovery to god. She may have felt inspired by her faith, but she did all the hard work. (and good for her!)

    April 12, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
  12. Weep4America

    If her faith played a major role in her ordeal then, of course, it's going to be part of the film. I don't see what all the fuss is about. If people don't want to see it, that's their choice. But nobody has the right to tell the family that their faith can't be part of a movie that's being made about their lives. Those who aren't interested in a faith based film don't have to see it. Those adamantly against it are haters and bigots and they can stay home and watch South Park. The rest of us can go enjoy it. I hate stupid stoner movies that contribute to the dumbing down of America but I don't come online and rage at them.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
    • elliemae

      What is your definition of a bigot? You attacked someone for pointing out that studios seek to make money. I do not sense the love of Christ in your heart. I will pray that your soul is one day redeemed. God bless.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:35 pm |
    • Weep4America

      @elliemae – The dictionary is very clear on what the definition of a bigot is. Spouting hate and ridiculing people for their faith is an exact definition. By your comment, you seem to think that being a Christian means being a doormat and that Jesus never got angry or spoke against those who were against Him. And I didn't attack anyone for pointing out what the studios want. I pointed out their derogatory tone and phrasing. Big difference. Lastly, before you go casting stones, dear sister, you seem to forget the command to Christians to not judge their brothers and sisters in Christ. (Judge not lest ye be judged.) In doing so, you've set yourself up as god, declaring that I'm not redeemed. The "judge not" verse, in context, applies to Christians judging others Christians. Careful of the log in your own eye.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:55 pm |
  13. app

    It's great. I don't have time to read it. Should this article be ENTERTAINMENT SECTION for public interest?

    April 12, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
  14. Jack R.

    Look, if someone wants to dump millions in to a movie drenched with references to a faith in denial about being polytheistic religion and other hokey mysticism, then so be it. Now that I know that this movie is reallly just another Jesus-pic, I'm going to vote with my dollars and not watch the thing. I'm sorry but I get enough jesufication in my daily life, I don't need to pay for it.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
    • navy seal

      Well then Paul will be right up your alley!!!! Hokey mysticism, really, wow, clearly your IQ is off the charts.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:51 pm |
  15. jinx

    What is the big deal that it has some religious message? I am not religious at all. Honestly, I could not care less. Sorry, but old joke "I really could care less". Didn't see the movie. However, Is it good or entertaining? If so, your $10 was well spent. If not, you made a bad choice. Folks, it is a movie based on someone's life. You buy the ticket and do not like it...oh well. That was your decision.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
  16. Codifex

    Whether you are religious, christian or not, the girl was a christian and her faith helped her recover. The faith is a positive thing – not negative. Don't bring negativity into it! If you don't believe or have faith then that is your choice and you are welcome to it but don't ridicule others because of what you believe in.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
  17. OIF Soldier

    This girl kicks butt!!

    Pro-Surfer and has her own movie.... You kick butt chick!

    April 12, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
  18. Citizenpc

    If Bethany was a Muslim, her faith would've been portrayed front and center as an important part of her story and without debate. The fact that portraying her Christian faith was debated shows a lack of tolerance and a double standard in today's society.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
    • copanut

      Baloney. If she were muslim the movie would not even be made. Anyway, it's hard to surf in a burqa.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
    • Weep4America

      @copanut – You've never heard of muslim faith based films? Wow. What a tiny world you live in.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
    • well

      you spelled baloney wrong

      April 12, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
    • Jose

      Unfortunately, hypocrisy runs deep in alot of Christians, most of Hollywood, and people in general. It is human nature to vocally say "I agree with being tolerant and open to all", but silently adding "as long as it adheres to what I believe".

      April 12, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
  19. dike

    I was debating last weekend if I should watch it... now no way... sorry my mind is closed when it comes to any religious groups damn... I would have enjoyed this movie if I did not read this

    April 12, 2011 at 10:12 pm |
  20. Sooty

    I don't get it. I'm a pretty 'rabid' atheist but I don't see why they should keep Behtany's faith out of the movie. This is essentially historical fiction; I want to see the movie because I want to know about her life between the attack and her return to surfing. If she woke up in the hospital with her father reading a bible, I want to see it; if she made it through the day by turning to prayer, I want to see that too.

    It seems strange to me that anyone would want a movie about a girls life to be edited because they wouldn't have lived the same way. What's the point in seeing the movie if they're going to make her out to be 'plain vanilla'?

    April 12, 2011 at 10:12 pm |
    • copanut

      It's very simple. A lot of people will not pay $10 to go to a preachy movie. The producers spend millions to make the movie and they expect to turn a profit.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
    • Weep4America

      @copanut – Hateful, intolerant bigots like yourself seem to love to come in a RELIGION blog a lot just to spout your hate. What a sad life you live. The rest of us actually visit blogs and websites we enjoy.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
    • Sooty

      @copanut No one forced them to pick this story...

      April 12, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
    • Sooty

      @Weep4America What's so hateful about pointing out that movie studios want to make money and were concerned that too much gospel would diminish the box office draw of their movie? I mean, I happen to think they're wrong, but it's hardly a 'hateful' position to take.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
    • kelle711

      Passion of the Christ: Domestic Total Gross: $370,274,604. Icon should give all that money back since apparently nobody would pay to see a "preachy" movie.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
    • Motley

      It is sad that when copanut makes a valid point, he gets ridculed and called a hateful intolerant bigot by someone like WeepsAlot,... I too could be categorized in the atheist vein,.. but I like to explore other ideas, read, learn,.. which is why I will go to blogs like this in a religious category,.. it is not due to trying to instigate anything like WeepsAlot, nor the hatred and intolerance that WeepsAlot labels others as, but has clearly shown to be themselves,... it is due to wanting to understand the world and the various perceptions in which we have,...

      Sorry weepsalot,.. you need to look in the mirror and think about this

      April 12, 2011 at 10:32 pm |
    • elliemae

      What in the world is bigoted and hateful about stating that studios create movies primarily to make profit? It's a business, just like church.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:32 pm |
    • Motley


      pasion of the christ,... people knew exactly what they were going to see and there is a huge amount of religious people,... a movie portrayed as the story of a young girl overcoming an event which was horrible, though not the worst thing in the world,... and then hearing nothing but religious quotations and focusing only on that aspect is different,... the story should have some of that in there since it is part of her ability to overcome,.. but it sure seems like the family wanted it in there a LOT, the studios who KNOW how to make movies and get a profit wanted to temper it,.... the studios have that right if they buy the rights to the story and there is no binding contract saying they have to put the emphasis on religion,....

      I for one would not appreciate being mislead if I was interested in spending money to view this story,.... sorry that you cannot see that perspective,...

      April 12, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
    • Dorry

      This ain't no Passion of the Christ.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:39 pm |
    • Weep4America

      @Sooty – When people call a movie "preachy" just because it has someone expressing their faith, it's being used in a derogatory manner. The film doesn't preach to the audience.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:39 pm |
    • anton

      Well said Sooty.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:57 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.