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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. Ecsetey

    she looks like she's on E.... of course she's seeing god.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:07 pm |
  2. benji

    Who are you people? We have a Hollywood who will without reservation give full play to stars and starlets fornicating with everyone and everything including the neighbor's dog, murder, dismemberment, mayhem, and every filth imaginable but when it comes to a young girl with a sustaining faith in the Divine, suddenly you get squeamish and it makes a headline story on CNN. Wow. Just Wow.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      Benji, I agree.... I Totally agree!
      When I read in the article " They said you can have God but not Jesus. They were worried about that...." it really hit hard, to see how far we have gone as people, society, and country from God whom our forefathers knew and honored privately AND openly.... I don't see a bright future for this country... To say there is one, it's just lullabying oneself with a lie!

      April 12, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
  3. SSampson

    There is no 'creator' .... not the way we think there is – Is there greater intelligence than that found here on earth – yeah, likely... There better be or the whole universe is in trouble...

    That being said, I have no issue with references to beleifs in a film that is supposed to parallel someones life event... If that is how it happened, then that is how it happened.... Hollywood puts up barriers where it sees fit...

    April 12, 2011 at 11:03 pm |
  4. Elizabeth

    i think it'd still be a great seller even tho it had God AND Jesus in it! I read this book about 2 years ago and it was very inspirational for me. i know i would've watched it either way but it seemed amazing to me how Bethany Hamilton wove Christianity and her faith into the book. It shouldnt matter 'how well it sells', it's about whos hearts it might touch.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:00 pm |
  5. Thomas

    Why is it no one talked about the shark's belief? Did the shark believe in God? Did the shark eat the girl's arm because God told it to?

    April 12, 2011 at 10:57 pm |
    • Elizabeth

      thats ok, we'll leave it to u to go ask the shark 🙂

      April 12, 2011 at 11:29 pm |
  6. Toby

    Jesus tells us in the New Testament that "whatever ye ask in my name ye shall have." Well, the question I would ask is if there is a god out there who actually answers prayers then why not ask for this poor girl's arm to re-grow? I am quite serious; supposedly the Biblical god can restore marriages, heal the blind (though only a few select people, not blindness per se) and even cause cancers to disappear and go into remission. Now, if this same deity is so powerful as to accomplish these feats, why does he not answer the prayers of those who are missing a limb? I think the answer is so clear as to terrify even the most steadfast of the faithful-the Biblical God is a fiction and a product of human imagination. Peace.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:57 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      Toby, the post I posted for Eric (few posts above) may answer some of your questions!

      April 12, 2011 at 11:30 pm |
    • Goodtiming

      @Toby, just like I told someone a minute ago: @Eric, in John Jesus talks about healing a blindman. The deciples ask why the man was born blind. Jesus answers "this man was born blind so that God's works can be shown through him" In this girls case, look how God's works are being shown through her. Its God will that she has no arm. It will be Gods will when she goes to Heaven. She will be rewarded in Heaven for her good works. I beleive the part about being rewarded for your life is something you need to read more about. Or just assume you die and thats it. your call.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:30 pm |
  7. lolumad

    god took ur arm.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:56 pm |
    • mike

      Seriously, Give me the religion where the God keeps me from being half eaten by the shark. Screw the god that lets the shark chew my arm of just so I have faith.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:06 pm |
    • Elizabeth

      depends on your point of view. I'm sure if you ask Bethany, she'll say she's better for it. I'm sure she has difficulties but God has touched many lives thru her story including mine. Everything works out for good.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:28 pm |
    • Elizabeth

      mike, sorry i didn't c ur comment wen i posted the last one. if you don't believe in God then thats ur issue. Faith helped Bethany get thru it and that takes faith. But if u don't believe in a God, then it would be a bit more difficult to understand. Bethany believes it.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
  8. Goodtiming

    Nice to see a great story on the big screen. I appreciate the the families commentment to not denying their faith. I believe they will be rewarded in Heaven.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:55 pm |
  9. CatsEye

    Implicit in the premise of this movie is the idea that Bethany could not have survived this ordeal without relying on her Christian faith. The fact that they wanted only Christians on the set because "they have a different spirit about them" demonstrates the exclusiveness and superiority of many religious people. Only they have the way. That's fine - I think it's often called "preaching to the choir". I'm not in the choir so I will not see the movie.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:53 pm |
  10. Eric

    Interesting... Why ins't there any medical miracles including amputees spontaneously regeneratering limbs? You all know why.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:53 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      Eric,
      You are wrong. There ar MANY medical miracles happening, even the dead being raised... It's not happening on a large sc'ale, and most of them are happening elsewhere, and NOT in this country.
      In the Bible there is a place where it speaks of Jesus NOT prefo'rming many miracles in some places, because He knew what was in the hearts of people there...
      This pre'tty much spells out co'ndition of people in this country. But I don't have to point that out, it's evident to all who even read the blogs here , as well other places...

      I have a question for you: If someone was claiming that God healed them, and those close to him claimed it's true, would YOU believe them? OR would you say most likely it's a fraud, and they have agenda.....?

      I hav seen so many proud, co'c'ky people , many of those are on these blogs, who would not believe if they seen a dead man coming alive! That 's how hardened they are!

      THAT IS WHY God does not do many obvious miracles, not in this land of proud, arrogant , self sufficient people. ....
      But among the lowly, humble, and simple people, whose hearts are not hau'ghty, and who know that they are dependant upon Him in every way, HE DOES MIGHTY THINGS, EVEN GREAT MIRACLES. I KNOW He does! I have myself seen and received them!

      April 12, 2011 at 11:19 pm |
    • Goodtiming

      @Eric, in John Jesus talks about healing a blindman. The deciples ask why the man was born blind. Jeses answers "this man was born blind so that God's works can be shown through him" In this girls case, look how God's works are being shown through her.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
  11. Mick

    CNN, you are so pathetic. There really wouldn't be much of a story for the movie if you didn't include her faith. Wishful thinking on your part. No wonder you are always in the toilet in the cable ratings. You are out of touch with humanity. 90 percent of people have some type of faith, and CNN always rails against it.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:52 pm |
    • Elizabeth

      i know! the last christian-based CNN story i read, the author was completely against it! it was so obvious! when it's something as fragile as faith, they should really work to hid their opinions about it!

      April 12, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
    • Elizabeth

      sorry, 'fragile' faith wasn't quite the best word to use in there....but im sure u kno wat i mean 🙂

      April 12, 2011 at 11:03 pm |
  12. Frangible

    I'm not particularly religious, but I hate historical revisionism. If religion was a major part of the story, it's appalling that there was such a drive to keep it out of the film. History should be presented as accurately as possible, no matter how it looks.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:52 pm |
  13. Dave R

    Hey, if she wants to cheapen her life story by inserting a bunch of religious fiction, that’s her choice. By the time I started typing this sentence I already forgot this silly twit’s name anyway.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:51 pm |
    • Elizabeth

      faith was a major part of how BETHANY recovered. It doesn't 'cheapen' her life when ur life's not centered around money. It may enrich their lives if they've centered around faith, as many have.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
    • elbon55

      Dave: the only silly twit here is you. Actually, you're a silly intolerant twit.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:08 pm |
    • John

      Thank you Jesus for a great movie about faith. If you dont know Jesus as your savior find faith in him. It takes even more faith not to believe

      April 12, 2011 at 11:11 pm |
    • Elizabeth

      elbon55, wat the heck!? u cant jus go around calling people ignorant twits! come on! be the bigger person at least!

      April 12, 2011 at 11:14 pm |
    • T. M. S.

      Classy. Spoken like a true expert on what life is really about.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:45 pm |
  14. Mikey B

    Someone give this girl a hand.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:50 pm |
    • Che-3

      Give a Hand? We thought she claims she's in good hands with Allstate. We are the ones without and hanging! Feel me?

      April 12, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
    • Mandatory Fun

      I see what you did thar...

      April 12, 2011 at 11:07 pm |
  15. Tom Paine

    The Founding Fathers did not pen the Pledge of Allegiance. It was written by a minister in the late 1800s with no mention of God. That was added in the 1950s at the behest of the Knights of Columbus. Nor did Thomas Jefferson write "endowed by our Creator." He wrote "their Creator." Big difference. It leaves the idea of what the Creator is to the individual. Just because the people who started this country were mostly Christian doesn't make this a Christian nation; it's the product of the Enlightenment, which sought to wrest governmental authority from monarchs and churches alike and place it in the hands of the people. Please learn your history.

    That said, what's the big deal? If her religious faith is a big part of the story, tell the whole story.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:47 pm |
    • elbon55

      Yo Tom, "Creator" doesn't refer to the "big bang" theory. He's referring to God. Bigger difference.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:06 pm |
    • Elizabeth

      he didn't say the Big Bang was the creator! some might believe in God or Jesus or the River God for all we know! People have different views of God. It's not just God and the Big Bang theory.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:12 pm |
  16. jaizes

    It sounds like it would be a nice story but I never really had much of any interest in surfing... There was something else I was thinking of but I can't remember what it w.. Oh yeah! I don't have any interest in that jesus thing either.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:46 pm |
    • elbon55

      You are one ignorant human being.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:04 pm |
    • Elizabeth

      elbon55, sorry but that opinion was based on ur perspective. I, too, am religious and believe in Jesus and everything in the Bible but i can't just go out and say someone is ignorant because they dont believe in Jesus. It may not be their fault! A Christian sent a letter to a strong Athiestic professor saying he was praying that the professor would get cancer to realize how much he needed God and, the professor got cancer. that letter was the reason he didn't become a Christian. don't judge to quickly.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:10 pm |
  17. Marc

    I agree with Lynn. I am an agnostic. Yeah I don't like being mobbed with religious messages when it's inappropriate, but this is ridiculous! She's a Christian and faith played a big part in her recovery and her life, which, if I am not mistaken, the movie is based on correct? It should be a big part of the movie as well if their goal is to make even a semi-accurate biography. I am for an absolute separation of church and state. But that's it. People should be able to practice their faith to the limit of their ability so long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others; and thus, it shouldn't be taboo to talk about your protagonist's faith in a movie about THEM! And since when is it taboo to be Christian in the U.S.? Laughable. Some of those involved in entertainment are so ridiculously out of touch and over think everything to the point of making their products bland. All of that being said, glad they kept it in. I just don't see the harm in it.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
    • Rob

      May be your perspective doesn't see the amount of Christian values, words, ideal that saturate our society. I agree with you believe what you want to believe and please tell the story. My objection comes with a seemingly endless supply of Christian faith based kids after school specials, and at least 20 top Hollywood movies based on Christian beliefs, Please don't make me list them again. I am a Pagan and my divinity is only allowed in to movies when there is phony hocus pocus going on meant to belittle the religion. Muslims, Hindi's, Buddhist suffer the same treatment in America. If you dis agree with me that Christianity is permeating every aspect of our culture and gets more "air time" than any other religion just look at your dollar bill or you coins, just ask your kid if the God he speaks to in the pledge of allegence is the god of Mohamad or Buddha? Any yet I hear the Christian right scream they are mistreated, under represented all while they politically claim American is and always has been a "Christian Nation". Yes believe what you want and if your faith works show it to others one on one but don't complain when your religion is in everybody's face day after day.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
  18. Debin Denver

    I don't attack people of any religious beliefs. I do believe everyone is (even led by their god/allah/buddha) to their ultimate beliefs. That being said...I dare say..there would be a number of Christians/muslims/ buddhists (well maybe not buddhists) who would say I am going to hell for my beliefs. Sorry, my fellow "created human beings", I do consider you telling me I am going to hell an "ATTACK"

    April 12, 2011 at 10:42 pm |
    • mikaman3000

      And maybe they believe that your complete denial of a higher power is an attack on them and their beliefs. What a friggin joke. How about you all stop being so thin skinned, and agree to disagree. People are just dying for the chance to play the victim these days. Sheesh !!!

      April 12, 2011 at 11:16 pm |
  19. Ed Ward II

    How about giving the girl an arm transplant.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:42 pm |
    • Che-3

      The Lord will provide not human beings or doctors. That's what I read from my BK (aka Bible Knowledge) class in 1st grade class. I was a pee wee then yet; I still those BK lines as stated.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:09 pm |
  20. Toby

    While I do not believe in any god, devil, angels, afterlife, or supernatual event of any kind whatsoever, I do applaud this girl's devotion to her own ideas and her willingness to fight for what she feels is right. Peace.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:42 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.