'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. LauraJT

    I saw this movie this week-end with my daughter and her girl friend and her girl friends Mom. I'm personally not a big fan of Christianity but I have to say this was a very inspirational movie. A bit cheesy at parts, but in the main it's message came across. To me, it was not so much the Christianity, but the human spirit, that came through. If you're an atheist, see it, you will love it. I'm more of a believer in science than of religion (not a big fan of religion) yet, there is a great story here. I also understand that these are Chrisitians who experienced it, so they give it a Christian connotation. However, you do NOT have to be Christian to walk away from this movie feeling inspired. It's the human spirit that comes through and it is a beautiful movie. If you choose not to see it because the people involved ARE Christian, you will do yourself a disservice. After all, any prejudice has to be looked at in your own mind. SEE IT. It will NOT make you a Christian. It WILL renew your soul:)

    April 13, 2011 at 12:04 am |
    • lena4god

      I agree with you 100 percent. I hate that people make it out to be what it is not or say such nasty things.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:11 am |
    • Nocordoba

      So you worship energy and matter because as an evolutionist or atheist that is what you worship. Religion is not to make you "feel good". The "human spirit" is crazy. The girl believed in God and that want to follow him and to glorify and enjoy him did it for she believed it was Gods will that she should lose her arm for a reason. And after this movie has been made someone might come to Christ. And she I am sure would think that if just one person came to Christ then losing her arm was worth it.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:13 am |
    • Mr Cottoncandy kisses

      God, please save me from your followers.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:36 am |
    • Heidi

      I just want to thank LauraJT for her open mind. I am a Christian and not muslim, yet was inspired by the Malcom X movie, so I relate to her response. I think it is fair for all people to tell their stories and just because it contains "faith" doesn't mean it should be shut down and/or not told, otherwise its saying that everyone who tells a story that contains a faith element doesn't have a right to talk. My company is preparing movies to go out and while they contain storylines of faith, hopefully will get the same response that LaruaJT has had, and reach all people for wherever they are at in "faith".

      April 13, 2011 at 12:39 am |
  2. msadr

    Bethany Hamilton has clearly proven you wrong.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:04 am |
  3. Doug


    April 13, 2011 at 12:03 am |
  4. mollyd

    Religion is for the weak-minded. It is all bout suppressing females and gaining wealth.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:58 pm |
  5. SDN

    I'm inclined to think that if you truly believe in your faith/philosophy/lifestyle, you don't bother defending it. I believe in living my life to the fullest – but always short of making victims – that is strictly off limits. That is my belief, and I express it if asked, but I see no reason whatsoever to defend it. Defend it against what?

    April 12, 2011 at 11:58 pm |
  6. Joe Somebody

    Only Sinners go to Church:)

    April 12, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      Joe Somebody
      Only Sinners go to Church:)
      You probably have no idea how close you are to the truth! Yes we have ALL sinned and come short of the glory of GOD BUT God calls His people saints and NOT sinners, even though we still sin. That my friend is the grace of God !

      April 13, 2011 at 12:12 am |
  7. Dee

    "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."

    Interesting how they worry about alienating nonreligious audiences, but never religious audiences. Hollywood never seems to hesitate to include as many offensive references to God and Jesus as possible in some films, but freaks out when someone wants to mention Jesus in a devout way in a surfing movie about a Christian girl. Crazy.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:51 pm |
  8. Mike

    Funny how we can have every profane word ever invented flung at us in movies but Jesus is not allowed?

    April 12, 2011 at 11:46 pm |
  9. Shaman

    Christianity or any other fairytale, can sell well depending on the writing and the promotion.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:45 pm |
  10. johnnyb52

    You prove Jesus. Jesus said that the world will hate us because it hated him first. he is hated by many and loved by few, yet he loves them all.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
  11. wobh

    the studio doesn't have a religious or political iissue.... it's purely financial

    April 12, 2011 at 11:40 pm |
  12. Debasis

    As usual morons fighting over delusional god.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:40 pm |
    • johnnyb52

      If God is not real then sincerely believing with all your heart and confessing with your mouth that Jesus is Lord will amount to nothing.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:46 pm |
    • msadr

      Well, her "delusion" took her from a cripple to a champion surfer. And mine took me from crippling knee injury to Pan American Champion. If faith in God is a delusion, then it's a useful one. When we contrast that with your delusion that the universe exists by magic and there is no purpose, the God-fearing delusion looks a heck of a lot more positive.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:01 am |
  13. hoofleau

    This whole thing about religion is ridiculous.Throughout film history, Hollywood has made a ton of movies with religious themes and the funny thing about Hollywood is that the majority of movie moguls are Jewish. To heck with Hollywood and the box offices. Let'em all starve and see what the real world is like.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
  14. Zack

    Whoever it was that said that CNN runs these articles to start a debate and get web traffic was right. That's about all there is to say on this piece.

    Though I must say I do rather enjoy reading the ignorant and hilarious arguments. I'm most fond of the increasingly vitriolic proselytizings of fundamentalist Christians who so vehemently insist that for believing anything other than what they believe you are somehow a worthless sinner living in abject squalor, and an affront to Jesus Christ, savior of the world. All the while insisting everyone is wrong but them and that somehow them disapproving of everyone else's beliefs or lack thereof is excusable while other peoples opinions and objections to Christianity are mortal sins.

    Good times... good times.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
  15. Thomas O'Neil-White

    Well I wasn't going to see it anyway.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
  16. Dan Sichel

    Regardless of your views on faith, it seems like they should tell the story in her voice. That would appear to include her Christian faith.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
  17. JeLa

    Why not just market to the Christians through other venues? Why must Hollywood try to shove this or any other religion down our throats? I'm sure the movie is inspirational but it wouldn't have to bemarketed so heavily and turn off potential new Christians in the interim. (or those of us who aren't) Been there, done that.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:29 pm |
    • mollyd

      I have a 15-yr-old.....looking for movies soon......NOT this one..................religion is nonsense.........TOTAL nonsense......................

      April 12, 2011 at 11:50 pm |
    • wyciwyg

      H'wood isn't sioving anything down your personal throat dear, it produces slash-bash-kill-dismember gore, sci-fi, drama, romance etc.
      i choose not to pay money to see movies that offend me. Likewise, YOU JeLa have the choice not to pay to view this movie. that's the beauty of being in this country: there's enough variety and choice to suit nearly all tastes, and the ability to not see what is distasteful or objectionable to each.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:54 pm |
    • Jessie

      Just like everything else that Hollywood produces, if you don't like it, don't go see it. Or maybe you're okay with the other things shoved down your throat?

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

      By the way.....I don't watch the horror, thriller films either. We have no TV here.......not for 12 years.........refreshing. My kids read, they can go to Youtube, or the internet.........Christian films should be advertised as such......

      April 13, 2011 at 12:02 am |
  18. Chad

    Christianity doesn't always sell well? In a world that consists of more Christians than any other faith and you are telling us that Christianity or faith doesn't sale? And just what does that mean, "...it doesn't sell..." Maybe all of us "Joe" Christians would stop going to the movies maybe Hollywood would change it's tune.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:29 pm |
    • mollyd

      I think you are wrong.......there are more Muslims in the world than an other faith............smile!!!!

      April 13, 2011 at 12:08 am |
    • Denise

      Most of the world is Christian? It's more like 32% of the world's population is Christian, and it's dropping. You guys don't own the world, you know.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:12 am |
  19. wife4ever

    I saw the movie Soul Surfer on Friday with my children and it was fantastic! Very inspirational for anyone-especially for teenagers! When is Hollywood going to seriously recognize that there are people like me out here that love movies like this and are willing to pay to see them over and over again? Great music, great photography, great acting, and a great message! If this is not your kind of movie- fine- just don't go see it....Thank you to Bethany, her family, and to Sarah – her youth leader. Anna Sophia Robb, Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, Carrie Underwood – you gave terrific performances. And by the way, I loved the Jeremiah quote- it was foundational to the theme of the movie. Way to go!!!

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

      Hey Theo:

      Sounds like you know much about that? Have you been taking some lately? You big stud you. Just like Deliverance eh?

      April 12, 2011 at 11:45 pm |
    • mollyd

      The sad thing for me is that I see so many people who profess to be Christians, and they are anti-Latino, anti-gay, anti-health care for all, anti-teachers, anti-EVERYTHING that doesn't touch their uber-rich white world.............Jesus would be appalled at what the tea baggers are trying to do here int he US.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:06 am |
  20. SDN

    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 11:26 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.