'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. Bob

    How many other people notice the Christain haters seem to have more hate, bigotry, intolerance, and insuls to throw than what they claim Christians do?

    April 12, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
    • steve

      I completely agree.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
    • Dave

      Yep... portray death, killing, exploding bodies, demons, carnage & the like bit leave God out. It's a sign of the times and I'm not surprised, besides, most of our producers are Jewish anway & have no interest in Jesus......."Nope!, don;t mention him, he doesnt sell"....the box office will be a ghost town. Why do people run from truth?...

      April 12, 2011 at 11:36 pm |
    • Enjay Sea

      You're right Bob. Christians are good. Non-believers are bad. Brand new concept, but I'm liking it! Hopefully someday I'll be as good as you!

      April 12, 2011 at 11:38 pm |
    • Shaman

      Where was JC the second before the shark attacked her and left her with one arm? On the sidelines, getting a thrill out of catastrophe, martyrdom, or something? That's called a personal relationship with Jesus?

      April 12, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
    • mollyd

      I won't see this movie based on this report.......religion sucks. It is rubbish. For morons only.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:48 pm |
    • Mr. Fluffy

      Totally agree. Its OK if you are Muslim or Atheist, but not otherwise.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
    • johnLA

      Isn't that part of why people become "Christian?"
      In order to get away from the race mind of human hatred and pettiness?

      April 12, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
    • LKJ

      I'm a Muslim and I would fully support a decision to portray Christianity in this movie. We need to stop being afraid of religion. It's an integral part of many peoples' lives and shouldn't be ignored.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:01 am |
    • jesus

      @ bob and LKJ
      religion is for the weak minded sheeple of the world
      religion has killed more people in the history of this planet than any other force
      allah,buddha,jesus,etc-they are for people who have committed crimes and try to atone for their failures as humans by hoping some made up imaginary person will save them
      there is no afterlife
      there is no heaven
      there is no hell
      the only hell i can imagine is being locked in a room with either one of you 2 losers

      April 13, 2011 at 12:06 am |
    • vanessa

      Bob– you couldn't be any more right!

      April 13, 2011 at 12:06 am |
    • Shane

      Mollyd: I've taken probably 25 nationally standardized tests throughout my lifetime and scored in the 99th percentile on probably half. These are tests like USMLE, MCAT, NCLEX, PSAT, ASVAB, etc. I have also had numerous evolution-based courses throughout my collegiate schooling. I believe the Bible offers truth. I believe I do well on those tests (and in those classes) with minimal effort because God has enabled me to do so. I do not believe I would fit the standard definition of a moron, though.
      I am not boasting. I am simply stating facts.
      I apologize for any Christians who have moments of weakness when they show you anger instead of love. Toodles.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:07 am |
  2. RichardSRussell

    They should try to make a realistic movie. Since the real-life Bethany had a real family, they should show that. If she had a best friend, they should show that. If she read some kind of inspirational book or had a good-luck talisman or had a motivational dream, they should show that. And if she relied on her religion (as was apparently the case), they should show that. They just shouldn't beat it to death. It's a movie about HER, not all the stuff on the periphery.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
    • diane Camilo

      Christianity is part of who she is. Her faith in God is what enabled her to over come such a horrible accident and rise above what most would not have, without Christ in her life . "All things are possible through him" (Jesus Christ) why be ashamed to let other teenagers know this ? I am a RN and a mother of 3 teenagers and have seen both professionally and personally the works of those who believe . Let Jesus be the message right along with her determination (Both can only be a positive influence on our youth)

      April 12, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
  3. smellarat

    I just am finding it hard to believe CNN dedicated front page headline space to the story. If the story is a story of this girl's faith in Jesus, then let that be the story. Don't try to re-write it and water it down so that it's some generic PC BS. We have enough of that these days. Thank you.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:24 pm |
  4. myvoice

    It really doesn't matter whether others 'believe' or not. That really shouldn't be an issue here. The movie is about her and what she went through in order to cope and move on with her life. It's not about you. If she relied on her faith in the God she chooses then that should definitely be a part of the movie. The movie was made to share her story not preach the gospel. It's not about trying to force her beliefs on you so stop trying to make every conversation related to belief in God about that. So many of you posting negative comments because that part of her story was included need to just get over yourselves. You want people to be tolerant with you because you don't believe but you don't know the definition of tolerance if you can't watch this move just because someone believes in God.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:24 pm |
  5. mj

    Is the star of this movie the same woman who advocated trashing her boyfriend's vehicle in a song? If so, I'm really confused about the message regarding Christian values

    April 12, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
  6. Bman

    Captain Ahab would have been proud.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:22 pm |
  7. mike

    God wanted her arm to get eaten by a shark. Maybe as judgment for a gay getting married somewhere.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:21 pm |
  8. becca

    I'm glad the studios kept her faith in the movie and referenced the Bible. It's all part of the story. To change it would change her remarkable story and the testimony of God's goodness and faithfulness throughout a difficult situation in her life.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:20 pm |
  9. Goodtiming

    An important passage for people who choose not to let God into their lives. Please try.
    11 “But as for you who forsake the LORD
    and forget my holy mountain,
    who spread a table for Fortune
    and fill bowls of mixed wine for Destiny,
    12 I will destine you for the sword,
    and all of you will fall in the slaughter;
    for I called but you did not answer,
    I spoke but you did not listen.
    You did evil in my sight
    and chose what displeases me.”

    Isiah 65

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

      So Jesus loves me, but if I don't love him back, he will torture me for all eternity? Cool guy.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:26 pm |
    • Goodtiming

      @mike, the belief in that is up to you. If you just want to believe that when you die, thats it, then have fun dude. Sounds a little more stupid to believe that nothing happens to you when you die. At least the bible provides some historical accounts of someone directly lined to Heaven who explains it to us. Makes more sense to me than anyone else's theory.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:38 pm |
    • John

      Wow....God, who is all powerful, invented everything and everyone, can do anything, but yet he seems to be CONSUMED by very petty things like being worried about people that may not believe in him because they just want a LITTLE bit of proof. Come on! Can't he give just a little bit? Like maybe stopping the Holocaust before all those MILLIONS of people were killed, or more recently stopping the tsunami from battering, crushing and drowning the THOUSANDS of men, women and CHILDREN. Either he doesn't exist, he is incapable of doing anything about it, or he is entirely ambivilant. Pick one.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:40 pm |
    • Goodtiming

      @John, dont think of her losing the arm as a punishment. The same for death. If the millions who died from the holocaust found God, then they are better off. This passage just means listen to God. If you ignore him, you could be punished. Take minutes a day to read Matthew in a quiet place. It will change your opinion.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:52 pm |
    • John

      @ Goodtiming... I never said it was a punishment. What I will say is that I think if God is going to "punish" (to use your word) people who don't believe in him by sending them to Hell that is pretty PETTY. Get over it God! It's not all about you Dude! Christians and other religious people seem to always want to have their cake and to eat it too. Meaning they want to praise God for all the "good things" in the world, but they don't believe he should take any blame for all the really bad things that happen in the world, including some pretty heinous things that are done in "his" name. And don't tell me those people are not real christians. God is basically the CEO. He is in charge, which means there comes a time when HE should be held responsible. I am not a Christian, but I think that for people that are it should be perfectly ok for them to BLAME God for some, if not most, of all all the truly awful things that have taken place over the history of this planet.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:10 am |
  10. Tim Ritchie

    This is a MADE UP controversy to advertise the movie!

    What is the name of the movie?

    "Soul" Surfer.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:18 pm |
  11. B.Woo

    It's funny how Christians believe their god can do miracles – i.e. raise the dead, make the blind see, remove cancers, etc. etc. Yet he can't make an amputee's arm grow back...
    Pretty useless god if you ask me.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:14 pm |
    • elbon55

      You're just another intolerant bigot.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:18 pm |
    • cooperpug

      Hmmm, I think that's the same thing the people who crucified Christ said...

      April 12, 2011 at 11:26 pm |
    • Dan Sichel

      I am glad G-d did not ask you. I have seen Him heal. I have seen Him not heal. I have seen people read the Bible and understand why. It bothers me that so many atheists read once through part of the Bible and say "I've read the Bible, it's just a book." I'm sorry, but I can't read Tolstoy or Hemingway once and get it all, or even most of it. Before you dismiss G-d, if you are intellectually honest, I would suggest spend some real time reading the Bible, and come to it AFTER you put aside your preconceived notions. You might be shocked at what G-d shows you.

      I won't engage in invective or name calling with you, but I would ask that you consider the possibility that there is a moral authority in the Universe greater than man. I certainly HOPE there is, because our moral decisions are not so hot. Anyway, look for that in the Bible, you may be surprised at what you find.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:30 pm |
  12. Jesus

    Kirk Cameron is a Directorial GOD.


    April 12, 2011 at 11:14 pm |
  13. T.O.

    I have noticed CNN, particularly online, publishes lots of faith-related articles.

    These articles get lots of hits because people feel compelled to debate this stuff. People like to read them to feel validated, if the article matches their faith, or they just read about how crazy the "other side" is, and then they make their feeling clear in the comments.

    CNN, in an effort to maximize profit, has upped their number faith-related articles published.

    And in this case, a story is just spun into the faith-realm. Blamo. More traffic. More money.

    CNN is just pushing our passion buttons. These are barely newsworthy stories.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:12 pm |
  14. christo

    Hey, enough with the bickering....God had the shark chew her up for a reason. How wierd is that?

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

      praise Allah!

      April 12, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
  15. maklappe

    thanks so much for the entertaining blogs,after a long day at work they make me laugh. what a bunch of nuts, people are actually dying to protect your way of life, yeeekss

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

    This is kind of sad, as there is actually not that much about faith in the movie- two bible verses, one church service, one trip to Thailand, thats about it. And the church service scene is not authentic- the worship band is singing but the congregation is just sitting there staring at them. Anyone who has ever gone to a church service would know that is not the way it happens. I wonder how that scene made it into the movie that way?? Regardless, it was a good movie, inspired me to want to overcome my own "shark attacks" of a different kind.....

    April 12, 2011 at 11:09 pm |
    • becks

      I grew up Methodist and there were songs sung by the choir while we sat in the pews... it wasn't every song but at least 2 a Sunday service that didn't require the congregation to sing along....

      April 12, 2011 at 11:30 pm |
  17. DANO

    Last time I checked, faith was rather universal. Didn't realize the Christians owned the copyright.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:09 pm |
    • elbon55

      To people like you, "Christian" is somehow a dirty word. It's OK for you to be tolerant of diverse lifestyles and religions but not Christianity.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:16 pm |
    • hmmmmm

      Where is your faith?

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

      This is a Christian girl and it's her story, so what's the problem? If it were a Jewish girl or Muslim girl or atheist or whatever, then that should be a part of the story. If this were fiction you could make an argument but it is a true story and it is her story to tell. She lost her arm and this is about how she dealt with it. Insisting she leave out what is most important to her in her journey just because you don't like it is narrow minded.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
  18. Eli

    Atheists are such fools, bunch of clowns, I feel sorry for them. Show them a Rolex watch and they will swear by their mother that the watch must have an intelligent Creator, yet the entire UNIVERSE with planet earth and its unique inhabitants are just a coincidence. God gave man free will, even if it meant that some would choose to freely be blind and ignorant while trying to annoy the faithful, every article where faith is mentioned or every time a person says "Thank God" you always find a bunch of annoying pests screaming "there's no God, There's no God" man STFU already, I'd like to put you all in a life threatening situation for 48 hours with a hidden camera just to show you all how hypocritical and stupid you all are, you will all be crying and begging for God's Mercy.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:09 pm |
    • goddude

      dude, I wonder who designed GOD almighty, just saying, according to your logical reasoning!

      April 12, 2011 at 11:20 pm |
    • SDN

      "Atheists are fools......a bunch of clowns..." God might not be so happy that you consider others of his creation in such a way. Your rationale should be nothing short of fascinating.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:22 pm |
    • SFC Mike

      Yawn.... Been in acutely life threatening situations for far more than 48 hours, and haven't poodled for God's mercy yet, sunshine.

      As far as Rolex watches and the universe goes, the thing about Rolex watches is that there are thousands of them, with interchangeable parts (within a given model) and an entirely orderly and predictable function. The universe as a whole is far more chaotic, disordered and disfunctional, despite physical law – the laws of physics allow for a very broad range of results. Plenty of solar systems with planets that can't host life, radiation, dust clouds, supernovae, but also water in abundance, aminonitriles in interstellar dust clouds, etc. Not really much of a comparison between an engineered product and the universe as a whole, but quite revealing of your theist desire to make reality fit your preconceptions, rather than letting observed reality lead you to conclusions about the nature of the universe.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
    • SDN

      So much anger, so much hate – it's way past apparent that you're very comfortable with your beliefs.

      "STFU already"? You'd like to put any in disagreement "...in a life-threatening situation for 48 hours.."? Not exactly 'bless you my brother'. I, personally would consider you, from what you yourself have said in one paragraph, a singularly cruel and evil person..

      I'm an atheist, and I respect all respectable people and their beliefs. Such beliefs have, over the past couple thousand years, given untold numbers of people comfort in times of fear and pain. You clearly have nothing even resembling such respect for you fellow man/woman – disdain and loathing seems to be your basic theme.

      After re-reading your comments......what is there about Christianity that you actually practice, let alone believe in? I know it's a little early, but you do get my nomination for "Hypocrite of the Millennium"

      April 12, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      I totally agree with your post ! ! !

      April 14, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
  19. Trueblues

    Hollywood balks at putting references to Jesus in movies, but doesn't bat an eye when a film contains 50 "GD"s.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:09 pm |
    • SFC Mike

      It's about money and risk. If it's got a track record of profitability, "Hollywood" will do it, because everything comes down to being able to raise production money. If this movie does well at the box office, you'll see more references to Christianity and more movies of this type.. If it ends up just a small-market niche film from a commercial perspective, you'll see the same sort of disinterest and resistance.

      Personally, I hope it does well – it seems to be a positive story and if it presents something close to the truth of Bethany Hamilton and her family, then good for her that her story is told.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:04 am |
  20. Toby

    Why can't God just re-grow this poor girl's arm? He can do everything according to Christians, so why can't someone who loses a limb have it restored? Think about it. Perhaps the Biblical god is just a fiction?

    April 12, 2011 at 11:09 pm |
    • Mike

      That's a silly thing to say, considering that because her arm was amputated and entire movie was made in which God is glorified.

      The Christian view isn't that God is cheating us by not giving us what we want, it's that God blesses us by giving us what we need.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
    • el

      simply, it is faith. please look it up.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:21 pm |
    • mike

      What she needs is another arm.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
    • Dan Sichel

      Why doesn't G-d heal her arm? For the same reason that all bad things happen; G-d made us moral beings who make real decisions with real consequences. Thus when we humans chose sin and selfishness over G-d's way of life, and we ALL make that choice to a greater or lesser degree, then we earned the consequences of our disobedience. This is NOT saying G-d is punishing her by taking her arm away, this is saying that sharks eat flesh, disease exists, etc. because we as a species have repeatedly chosen to disobey. Therefore G-d lets us live in our natural state of decay, predation, and increasing entropy. Things are getting worse because people behave badly and make them worse. This will continue until G-d cannot take any more of it and returns to claim and redeem and repair the septic tank that humans made out of His beautiful creation.

      Why doesn't her arm heal? Look in the mirror, deep into your eyes and see the selfish sinner. That's why.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:24 pm |
    • hmmmmm

      Toby. I know you're just trying to be funny but you sound very ignorant to Christianity. So then, why attempt to comment on this topic?

      April 12, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
    • SFC Mike

      @ Dan – sharks have always eaten flesh, many millions of years before there were humans around to sin. The fossil record of sharks is pretty extensive, and none of them were vegetarian. 😉 Disease has also likely existed since late pre-Cambrian times, as soon as there were other organisms for simpler organisms to infect. "Man's sinful nature" has nothing to do with common biological processes which pre-dates man's existence by millions of years.

      Your concept of God is pretty sick and sadistic (though you would deny this vehemently) – a God who "punishes" young children worldwide with diseases such as malaria, whooping cough, diptheria, etc. (not to mention really fun diseases like AIDS, hemorraghic fevers, leprosy, elephantiasis and other diseases of parasitism which can affect all ages) for "man's sinful nature" – or any other reason. You're simply trying to rationalize undeniable natural processes and phenomena to fit your concept of God.

      She lost her arm because she ran into a shark that likely mistook her and her surfboard for something else, and the shark didn't like the way she tasted, or she got lucky. A lot of people survive shark bites, some don't, and most never get bitten at all. Her arm didn't grow back because there's really no evolutionary advantage to humans regenerating limbs – else we would likely have evolved the capability.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:58 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      @Dan Sichel
      There is a lot of truth in your post!

      April 14, 2011 at 8:36 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.