'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. denise

    I am really excited to see this movie. Jesus Christ is a huge part of my life,actually he IS my life 🙂 its very amazing to have this girl go through what she's gone through and have so much faith!

    April 13, 2011 at 12:32 am |
    • Hugo

      For people being critical, try a careful reading of what Denise wrote. What do you think Denise is trying to say?

      April 13, 2011 at 12:47 am |
  2. Tron

    So dramatic. Why does it have to have some tantamount meaning attached to it? This happens in nature every single second.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:32 am |
  3. New Yorker

    So, if there is a god, why would HE (or SHE) let a shark take this young girls arm? Ridiculous. Frightened simpletons believing in magic. Smarten up.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:31 am |
    • Jeld

      You have a very misguided understanding of religion. God is not a puppetmaster.

      April 13, 2011 at 4:34 am |
  4. Billy

    To be honest, I sometimes find Christian zeal to be overkill and insincere.
    I think sometimes they might claim to know who the Lord is but really don't...why else would they need to go on and on and on.
    I also don't like church because I hate feeling this strong sense of conformity and people pleasing and it feels false.
    What makes it false in part is one pastor speaking all the time, or most if the time. And also when everyone tries to act so good and perfect. I can't find faith in God like this. It is a real test to my faith right now. I also hate the perpetual struggling of Christians, if God is around them so much then why are they always struggling so much? Devotion doesn't have to be so sad, and it doesn't have to be an empty goal to happiness either. I believe in God and the bible, but different parts make sense to me at different times, depending in my mood. I don't want to be right or be a messiah or an angel, I just want to be real all the time.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:30 am |
  5. John

    "He" doesn't exist.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:28 am |
  6. B.D.Kuchera

    It's not about Christian movies. It's about Jesus being part of creating them and expressing Himself in them in the most authentic and life-changing way possible. If we keep trying to make "Christian films", we're screwed. He wants something more than that. He wants to rock this industry with something radical. I've officially jumped off the cliff a while back on this one. Time to push as hard as with what we saw in "The Passion". Jesus wasn't a wimp. He was ripped to shreds. Our films should push that hard. Anything less is a mockery.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:26 am |
    • jesus is a freakazoid child molestor

      jesus was a childmolesting p.o.s.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:33 am |
    • jesus is a freakazoid child molestor

      i bet jesus had the 'virgin' mary bent over a log pounding her like there was no tomorrow!

      April 13, 2011 at 12:36 am |
  7. The Dude

    Religion is for cowards and idiots.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:25 am |
    • Jeld

      There is nothing cowardly about believing in something so many people vehemently oppose. I can think of many intelligent people who believe in God. Peace.

      April 13, 2011 at 4:30 am |
  8. jesus is a freakazoid child molestor

    we all would want to tap that tight bod and use some ky jelly while doing the reverse cowgirl on her in a quasi doggiestyle

    April 13, 2011 at 12:25 am |
  9. Lee

    I'm a historian and attorney who set out to objectively analyze evidence and disprove the "Jesus story". After three months of diligent research I came to a surprising conclusion – the most compelling and persuasive evidence supports the validity of the New Testament. I now believe Jesus is who He said He is… I suggest those capable of doing the research for themselves do so. Perhaps you’ll discover what I have: the God who created you was here on earth, and he said some important things. It may be in your best interest to hear and contemplate His words.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:24 am |
  10. Mo'Money

    That's interesting: the producers were 'ok' with God, but against using the name of Jesus.They were worried because "Jesus" is pronounced twice, that's too much, it's offensive! Probably because most Hollywood producers have a certain religion?

    April 13, 2011 at 12:23 am |
  11. Chuck

    Okay I'm confused. Is Soul Surfer an inspirational film or a faith-base? I don't mean any disrespect towards the faithful, but I think I will pass on this one.

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

    To All Atheists, God Haters, Doubters and Non-Believers,

    Sadly, you are all mistaken. God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for our sins and through His life, death, and resurrection offer eternal life to whosoever will. (see John 3:1-21, Acts 2:38) However, if you don't repent of your sins, unbelief and believe on Jesus Christ, you will die in your sins and be the one burning in Hell.

    "Jesus answered and said to him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." – John 3:3

    "Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again." John 3:7

    "Then Peter said to them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." – Acts 2:38

    According to the Bible, there are no Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, Jews, Gentiles, Animists, Atheists, Doubters, Non-Believers, God Haters, Agnostics, Buddhists, etc. in Heaven. They are all burning in Hell for not accepting God's FREE gift of Salvation through Jesus' death/blood atonement on the Cross at Calvary.

    You can be "Good" in this life and "believe" anything you want, but it doesn't change the reality that the only way to Heaven is through Jesus Christ. If anyone dies believing in Jesus Christ for their Salvation, then they are in Heaven right now.

    "I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture." John 10:9

    "Precious in the sight of the LORD Is the death of His saints." – Psalm 116:15

    If, like most people, they die believing in no God, good-works, man-made idols, false gods, false gospels or other religious systems (ie.Allah, Krishna, Buddha, Islam, Shinto, Catholic Saints, Idols etc. etc.) then they are burning in Hell. (Revelation 21:8)

    The choice is yours – (Acts 2:38) Repent, Believe get Baptized on the name of Jesus Christ and be Saved. Otherwise perish. If you don't want to hear the Truth, don't get angry at Christians (we're just the messengers informing you what the Bible says), get angry at yourself for rebelling against God Almighty.

    And Yes! Seeing that you enjoy living a godless life everyday of the week and you don't make time for God or attend church on Sunday's or any other day of the week consider yourselves preached too!!


    April 13, 2011 at 12:17 am |
    • John

      God does not exist.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:26 am |
    • scott

      You are quoting text written and compiled by men. Prove that what the text says is true. When you can do that, then we will move on to the parts you don't want to admit are true. Namely, that the bible has advocated for abuse of women, slavery, vindictive killings, etc.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:40 am |
    • jesus teabagged mary all day and night

      the greatest way to turn someone off of religion(in this case bible thumpers)?
      make them read the bible

      April 13, 2011 at 12:43 am |
    • Sarah

      No matter what your belief system, all paths to god are positive, AND correct(in my opinion). I feel compelled to point out that their are not two kinds of people: Atheists and Christians. Even atheism can be positive. How good of a person you are is not based on what you call yourself at all. It is determined by the respect and love you show other people.
      It's confusing to me how everyone here can spend so much time writing lengthy posts that are judgmental(varying on hateful) and be so sure that they are the only ones with valid thoughts by throwing out quotes. Seriously....telling people if they don't think like you they are going to hell? Disgusting. And not very christian, btw.
      You are not a good christian by telling people what to think and "preaching". You are just an ass.
      Learn some respect.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:46 am |
    • Kerygma

      @ John – Only in the inner recesses of your mind.

      @ Scott – Prove to me God doesn't exist.

      @ Jesus Tea – Atheistic excrement...for real!

      @ Sarah – You're right...its just your opinion.

      April 13, 2011 at 1:17 am |
    • Mark Richards

      So let me get this straight. All non believers will burn in hell for eternity because they do not believe in Jesus Christ and repent. Even kind Buddah's who only ever respect life and help people. But George Bush who is a christian and repents every Sunday at church is going to heaven even though he is responsible for the death of some 700,000 innocent people in Iraq.

      Either your God is a bit whacky. Or your interpretation of the bible is a bit whacky. I think the latter. You born again Christians are the hate mongers and the breeders of intolerance in this world. And sorry, there is no hell. If God created free will and human beings then in your eyes he must have done a bloody terrible job to create so many non believers.

      Wake up!!!!!

      April 13, 2011 at 1:30 am |
  13. Daniel Crain

    "I wanted as many Christians as we could get to play parts in the movie. They just have a different spirit"

    Grow up guys...plus you are self contradictory: jesus said all people are born the same, live the same, die the same..everything is the same. then how come christians have a different spirit? it either means someone hasn't properly read the bible or just doesn't follow what it says

    April 13, 2011 at 12:17 am |
    • don

      Jesus never explained that there is no difference in men and women that become believers vs those that don't. he makes it very clear that He doesn't teach that.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:57 am |
  14. Chuck

    Okay I'm confused. Is Soul Surfer a inspirational film or a faith-base film? I don't mean any disrespect towards the faithful, butI think I will pass on this one.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:16 am |
  15. Tom

    Barnacle Bill, prove God doesn't exist. You can't prove it any more than someone can prove God DOES exist, right? So either way, its about faith, young'un. You simply have faith God does not exist. A Christian has faith God DOES exist. Got it?

    April 13, 2011 at 12:15 am |
    • scott

      No Tom. You don't get it. An atheist does not believe one way or the other. If there was evidence to PROVE the existence of God, then the Atheist would be the first to admit and agree. This is not a hard concept... An Atheist doesn't take anything on faith, but until there is proof that there is a God there is not reason to assume that there is one...

      April 13, 2011 at 12:37 am |
    • don

      actually, scott, your no being logical. you either believe Man was created (God does exist) or that man came about by chance (God does not exist). either way you believe what you will by faith in something because proving what happened at the beginning is imposable. you thought could just as easily be flipped the other way – until science proves life can exist with God (this would require recreating the event) we will assume God IS.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:54 am |
  16. truth

    Look around...there HAS to be something of a higher power to create the earth, nature, the sun and so on. Read the Bible, TRY to understand it. God says that if one person tries to seek Him, He will make himself known. He can melt the heart of stone. I've gone through so many times in my life where I had no idea what to believe, but He saved me...and I would much rather be serving HIM on streets of gold, in a perfect place beyond my comprehension then burning in hell, with fire and brimstone. BEGGING for just one drop of water.
    *who are YOU to cast judgment on someone? we are all on the same level. No one is "greater" than anyone else. We are all human. All equal.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:15 am |
    • Not the Truth

      Religion is probally the biggest scam of human history. There is no proof besides a supposed secondary source callled the Bible about the existance of GOD. Science proves and explains things way better than any religious book, and has proof to back it up. Religion is santa claus for the adults.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:30 am |
    • don

      science explains nothing about the existence of life, or matter for that matter.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:48 am |
  17. Brian

    "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?"............................

    There you go, using a rhetorical trick to turn the situation upside down. Is your real name Jimmy Swaggart?

    April 13, 2011 at 12:12 am |
    • Draeggo

      Why didn't you just answer the question Brian instead of making a personal attack? At least Christians believe in something besides themselves.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:46 am |
    • don

      can't a person simply have an opinion? such hatred

      April 13, 2011 at 12:47 am |
  18. Joe Mahma


    And I'm sure if she were an Atheist, she'd just shrivel up and die.


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

      Thank you - that was a great line.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:32 am |
  19. tony

    God arranges mutilation of young girl – young girl overcomes mutilation to become good at making money without working or producing anything useful for other people. Really good inspirational role model for young women. Especially the 99.99% who don't live on a hot sunny coastline with big waves.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:10 am |
    • surfer ted


      April 13, 2011 at 12:31 am |
    • Bill

      So you've seen the movie. No? Wow, so not only are you narrow minded, but you are also a troll.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:31 am |
  20. lena4god

    The fact that people can be so disrespectful to Christianity is appaling. It is one thing to not believe thats fine, your judgement day shall come and believe me it shall but to sit there and say deragotory comments while reading the bible is just disgusting. I can't judge you but on the day of judgement I pray God has mercy on your soul. And it is true, it is not fair that Hollywood can show demonic movies and all other rubbish but one movie with religious views is deemed inappropriate. I mean seriously Hollywood, it is better to give the youth something to hope for!!

    April 13, 2011 at 12:10 am |
    • John

      There is no god.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:24 am |
    • Keith

      The notion that we should all respect one another's religious beliefs is nothing more than propaganda that has been repeated so often that people accept it as a truism. It is high time that sane thinking people stood up and spoke their minds about the absurdity of religion.
      It is dangerous. it is delusional, it does not stand up to the least bit of scrutiny, and it is the single biggest problem in the world today.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:37 am |
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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.