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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. Thomas J.

    I hear that there are efforts to make Don Piper's 90 MINUTES IN HEAVEN into a film. That book is amazing! VERY inspirational and very powerful! I hope it gets made – would LOVE to see it!! Have read the book a 1/2 dozen times!

    April 13, 2011 at 1:17 am |
    • Todd

      That book is terrible. Makes no sense why God would allow someone to go to Heaven and then send them back to this place? Where in Scripture do you find that?? Ridiculous! Once in Heaven always in Heaven. There is no coming back. I thought that was obvious. Same with that little boy whose fatehr wrote "Heaven is Real". His son apparently "died" while being operated on at 4 years old then 8 years later tells this story about being in Heaven??? C'mon people. Fox news asks the kid about what was God like and his response was "God is so big he can hold the whole world in his hands". Wait...isn't that a song?? Don't be so naive. Scripture tells everything we need to know about Heaven. We don't need someone like Don Piper or a 4 year old telling us what Heaven is like. Am I the only one who gets this??

      April 13, 2011 at 6:36 am |
    • Servant

      Todd:
      You are obviously versed in the scriptures, so, I would only encourage you to answere your own question as to the authenticity of the 2 individuals in which you question as their visits to heaven and read the book of Revelation and how the disciple in which was sentenced to the island, came to write his passage and what he saw.......

      April 13, 2011 at 7:41 am |
    • jaysunstar

      It clearly states in the bible that NO ONE goes into heaven until Jesus returns. The dead are waiting until then.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:13 am |
    • mary

      jaysunstar question:

      i have heard that we are all sleeping when we are dead and waiting for the second coming but i am having a hard time with the other scripture that tells us we will be with Christ if we believe when we die. Can you explain what you mean? I have read the references to being asleep when we are dead in the Bible so i do not disagree with you, I just don't understand how it works with the other scripture stating we will be with Jesus in spirit when we die.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:47 am |
  2. Jeff Paulson

    The ironic thing is ... for all those who don't "believe in God" ... I usually agre with them ... because the "God" they describe or define ... isn't a "God" I believe in either. For those wondering what I'm talking about, I recommend considering trying to fully understand the concept of "free will" or "freedom of choice". Then after chewing on the real meaning of that, then think about is there a difference between what God causes, and what God allows to happen ... and then relate that back to "free will". Just saying ... it's a much deeper topic than most have given it credit for.

    April 13, 2011 at 1:16 am |
  3. Hardpill

    All of y'all just pay your buck n watch the movie if you like it or just S T F U. Nobody asked ur opinion on Christ and Christianity. bunch of athe-istic nean-der-thal loos-ers always ready sp-ew ven-om.

    April 13, 2011 at 1:04 am |
    • Hugo

      If nobody asked our opinion, why is this forum here?

      April 13, 2011 at 1:08 am |
  4. Richar

    Can't help but sigh, such a brave story of a young woman overcoming a devastation thing in her life, only to have it thrown away with the belief that god had something to do with it, or her strength to survive it. People don't give themselves enough credit, and if there is a god, it doesn't care about one women surviving a shark attack while thousands die from a Tsunami.

    April 13, 2011 at 1:01 am |
    • Noiva de Jesus

      It is through God's grace that we are able to overcome adversities! Whether you believe it or not, His grace gives us strength to go through storms of life.

      April 13, 2011 at 1:05 am |
    • Noiva de Jesus

      Whether you believe it or not, His grace gives us strength to go through storms of life. It is through God's grace that we are able to overcome adversities!

      April 13, 2011 at 1:06 am |
  5. Andrew

    "...it’s always best to air on the side of authenticity." Um, my guess is Michael Flaherty did NOT say that. But what do I know? Perhaps he spoke in AIR-ror.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:59 am |
  6. Naomi

    I thought the movie was perfect! I laughed, I cried, and I loved every moment of it...even the spiritual aspect. It made me stop and reflect on my own faith! This was probably one of the best fims I have ever seen!!!

    April 13, 2011 at 12:57 am |
  7. LOLLERWAGONS

    A religious woman goes surfing and gets attacked by a shark. God is a dick. The end.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:57 am |
    • Hugo

      I respectfully ask that you learn about Christianity before your attack it.

      As an "I am second" Christian, Bethany would believe that her body is something he has, not something she is. Something she has was attacked. Her body is temporary (from the perspective of her faith).

      April 13, 2011 at 1:02 am |
  8. Just an edit

    “After all the back and forth – and there’s always back and forth – it’s always best to air on the side of authenticity,” said Michael Flaherty...

    I'm pretty certain he meant "err on the side of authenticity," eds.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:47 am |
  9. Bob

    The comments on this story are just what I expected they would be.

    There truly is "nothing new under the sun"!

    April 13, 2011 at 12:47 am |
  10. Buddha

    I think most Christians would be shocked to learn how much of their religion was stolen from Greek, Roman, and Egyptian religions. Just sayin'. And the studios telling them they can say God but not Jesus – gee, I wonder where that comes from.

    (Hint: News Corp. President Peter Chernin (Jewish), Paramount Pictures Chairman Brad Grey (Jewish), Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Robert Iger (Jewish), Sony Pictures Chairman Michael Lynton (surprise, Dutch Jew), Warner Bros. Chairman Barry Meyer (Jewish), CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves (so Jewish his great uncle was the first prime minister of Israel), MGM Chairman Harry Sloan (Jewish) and NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker (Jewish). )

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

      How about some examples? (I mean of stealing, not the list of people of the Jewish faith).

      April 13, 2011 at 12:57 am |
    • Noiva de Jesus

      Jesus came NOT to give us a religion but to pay for our sins and iniquities! Through His blood, we receive the gift of salvation! Praises be to the King of kings and to the Lord of lords!

      April 13, 2011 at 1:02 am |
    • Buddha

      There are plenty of virgin birth stories in ancient Roman and Greek religions, for example. Greek (pagan) philosophy during that time period is pretty overwhelming in the gospel of John, if you're looking for it. Etc.

      April 13, 2011 at 1:09 am |
  11. Spendlove

    "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."

    What a bunch of freaks!

    April 13, 2011 at 12:44 am |
    • Noiva de Jesus

      I pray that the LORD will lift the veil from you eyes so that you will receive His revelation!

      April 13, 2011 at 1:00 am |
  12. NCCrew

    Kerygma, you are a fool to say some of what you just said. You are spoken like someone who is trying to drive people away from the very thing you claim you want them to join and embrace. Kerygma, your response is what fuels the fire in "non-believes" and "haters." Your approach at "helping" absolutely sucks.
    Thank you for making all Christians look like chumps.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:41 am |
    • Cajun Herb

      Yeah! Christians don't need any help looking like chumps.

      April 13, 2011 at 1:20 am |
  13. You Idiots

    Again this layout is stupid..oldest comment first?! Newest comment last?! Its a wonder anyone receives reply' on here. Anyways I don't care about this movie...what I do care about is the 2 nails they say belong to Jesus crucifixtion. Any one care to ask why they only have 2 NOT 3?! I know the answer.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:41 am |
    • a reader

      I believe there were traditionally actually five or six nails used for people that were crucified. One or two through the feet. Two through the palms and two through the wrists. Interesting, huh.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:58 am |
  14. BGko

    If you don't like it don't go see the movie, problem solved.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:41 am |
  15. tempest

    http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/

    Just saying....

    April 13, 2011 at 12:39 am |
    • Hugo

      I read it. What is your point?

      April 13, 2011 at 12:53 am |
  16. Mr Cottoncandy kisses

    God, please save us from your followers.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:38 am |
    • Hugo

      What is wrong with God's followers? The Crusades are an obvious attack point. If you choose to use that, how do you *know* the people who participated in the Crusades were God's followers? How do you *know* that anyone is God's followers?

      April 13, 2011 at 12:50 am |
    • Noiva de Jesus

      You hate Christians but Jesus had already alerted us that the world would hate us as it hated Him!

      April 13, 2011 at 12:59 am |
  17. Shawn

    Remember, Bethany: You being attacked by a shark was all part of God's plan. That, or you have a lack of faith.

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

      You don't think she already knows that?

      April 13, 2011 at 12:43 am |
    • Noiva de Jesus

      God is incapable to commit evil! He is a loving and a just God! But Jesus said we would have trials and tribulations!

      April 13, 2011 at 12:58 am |
    • W.Jeffs

      I could have told her years ago that it was going to happen.

      Prophet

      April 13, 2011 at 1:02 am |
    • W.Jeffs

      I've had a few trials and tribulations. I crack myself up.

      Prophet

      April 13, 2011 at 1:04 am |
  18. Jeffision

    More christians hungering to be martyrs in their hot sky god fantasy. If they're so devout, then why is the sky god's blonde messenger giving us a peek at the fruit? It's understandable...fruit such as this is vitally important in order to attract maximum spotlight for this pity party public display of victimhood. I don't hear these xtians moaning about fruit on display. These religious fanatics hijacked that girl's ordeal and her successes in an attempt to aggressively push their grand religious psychosis into the media spotlight. I'm surprised they didn't file a lawsuit. Now they'll do a well negotiated ($$$) round of xtian talk shows and there will be at least one book deal – but it's the timely release of the movie to television and dvd that's critically important and time-sensitive. In order for this to happen there has to be lots of media buzz – they're playing the persecuted victim card in an attempt to whip up as much of it as they can. Maybe if xtians walked their mumbo jumbo more often folks wouldn't have quite such a low opinion of them. Strident in-your-face sky god madness itself is a very tough sell...why add blatant hypocrisy on top of it?

    April 13, 2011 at 12:35 am |
    • Hugo

      Why do you think that God has a problem with you looking at the top of Bethany's breast? I suggest you at least understand Bethany's perspective (which I think you clearly do not) before you criticize it.

      Assuming Christianity is correct, what does God want? Do you even know?

      April 13, 2011 at 12:46 am |
    • Noiva de Jesus

      Jesus said in Matthew 11:28 "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." A heavy laden person may be burden with (1) sin, (2) excessive demands of religious leaders, (3) oppression and persecution, (4) weariness in the search for God. Jesus frees all people from all these burdens. All you have to do call upon the name of the Lord.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:56 am |
  19. Yo mamma

    Religion is used by people who can't or won't accept things they dont understand, yet can be proved/disproved by science. It's always been tha way and always will be. Too sad people are too nearsighted to realize science explains things, religion does not.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:35 am |
    • Hugo

      Your statement is relevant to your perspective and millions of others. But the story isn't about you or any of those million of people. The story is about Bethany. She believes what she believes. She is motivated by what motivates her. She believes she is second.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:40 am |
    • Noiva de Jesus

      Those who do not believe in God, prove to me that there is no GOD? Jesus said in Matthew 11:28 "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." A heavy laden person may be burden with (1) sin, (2) excessive demands of religious leaders, (3) oppression and persecution, (4) weariness in the search for God. Jesus frees all people from all these burdens. All you have to do call upon the name of the Lord.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:55 am |
    • Rod C. Venger

      Yeah? Explain to me where atoms came from. Electrons. Protons. Neutrons. We know they exist but science doesn't have a clue where they came from. Where did the particles that make up our Universe come from. The easy answer is they came from the Big Bang. But where di that matter come from? Where did the emptiness of the primordial Universe come from? If there was nothing out side of the matter ball that eventually became the big bang, what did the Big Bang expand into if there was no Universe there to expand into? You say science has all the answers that religion does not. I'm all ears.

      April 13, 2011 at 1:11 am |
    • steven

      So according to science what comes first, the chicken or the egg?

      April 13, 2011 at 1:11 am |
    • Andrew

      As a scientist by trade, I know there is very little that is actually "proven" by science. Most of the time the only thing we can prove is a correlation. It's too bad there's so many atheists out there that turn science into an anti-religion tool for their own agendas.

      April 13, 2011 at 1:13 am |
    • Sheri

      Pardon the pun but "AMEN!"

      April 13, 2011 at 1:19 am |
    • Wayshower

      A wise person looks at all philosophies with an open mind as a lot of them are difficult to prove or disprove.

      A fool looks at only one side of a belief, and comes to their own conclusion without evidence to fully disprove the other side, and hence makes their own final judgment in the same sense that the very philosophy they are denying does by a lot of its fanatics, hence the fool in turn becomes a fanatic of their own belief, and ironically, is no different from the very belief that they choose to ignore.

      April 13, 2011 at 1:21 am |
    • a beliver

      will you take the chance if you are right when you die ? If you belive then you will live forever in heaven, if you don't then you may live forever in hell. You pick which ,God gives free will.

      April 13, 2011 at 1:22 am |
  20. bob

    Persecution complexes sell. It doesn't matter what group, they will eat it up. Good fake story producers.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:33 am |
    • Hugo

      What? Reading the text leads to me conclude you are denying that she lost her arm. That's an absurd conclusion. That means I don't understand your post.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:36 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.