'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. Nancy

    It breaks my heart that people reject something that's given so freely

    April 13, 2011 at 8:34 am |
    • David

      Nothing is free.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:42 am |
    • Stacy

      So freely given, like something is given with a gun to the head. You're free to accept this loving gift – of course, you'll burn forever if you don't accept it, but nothing's being imposed upon you. You're totally free.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:47 am |
    • Brian

      @Ryan I was the same way before, I didn't want it. In the end it is your choice, that's one of God's greatest gifts, free will. But I pray you reconsider, and at least open up your heart to something more than just this life. I promise this to you, I've lived both lives. Once you wake up and listen to what God is saying, and accept Him, it will be as if you've just started living and a weight has been lifted. Trust me, trust Him.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:55 am |
    • Hugo

      Really David? Nothing is free? What about intellectual property in the public domain?

      April 13, 2011 at 8:57 am |
    • Nancy

      The love of Christ is free. We don't have to earn it, it is impossible for us to earn it. It is given to those freely who will accept it.

      April 13, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • Hugo

      @Nancy. I agree. However, David doesn't. But he made a blanket statement, using a word that has two very different meanings, and I'm trying to find out what he actually meant.

      April 13, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • Luis Wu

      Given??? Oh yeah, I want to accept something from an invisible supernatural being in the sky, because if I don't he'll send me to be TORTURED – FOREVER! Nice guy your god. Get a brain.

      April 13, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • Joseph

      There is a lot of talk about boycotting things in this nation to take an economic stand like boycotting fuel for a day for example. My question is, where is the talk of boycott from Christians to take a stand for Christ? What if Christians boycotted Sony Pictures to send a message that it IS ok to put Christ and His word in movies?!!?

      April 13, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • Nancy

      @Luis Wu: Those who reject Him will go to hell, yes. What if someone cursed you, spat on you, and was against you. Would you let them into your home and love them? most likely, no. same thing, you wont go to heaven. But with God, unlike people, God forgives for all of that if you only ask. He loves you and always will, but if you decide to reject him that is your own doing. He has extended His hand to you, if you dont take it you choose your eternal destination, not God.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
  2. Mark

    I think she's an incredibly brave and determined girl. She deserves all the credit for pushing herself to get back on that surfing board, not a non-existent deity.

    I don't understand why so much credit is given to god for her recovery. Why didn't god stop the shark attack in the first place? It's like a having a parent who intentionally keeps their kids sick so she can care for them and make them love her.

    April 13, 2011 at 8:24 am |
    • Fuyuko

      I personally, never understand why people choose to attribute good things to god, when it just seems to be an accident or luck to me. I guess they get some comfort from that. But to me- it denies the human element, doctors, nurses, and a person's own hard work.

      April 13, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  3. GrammarNotSeen

    It'd be nice if more of my fellow atheists would stop being d!ckheads and giving more fuel to the crazy bible thumpers that try to convince the rest (and more sane) members of their flock about how hateful of a group we are. Why can't many atheists get that jerking off to yourself because you're "smarter than religion" hurts our cause more than help it? The main draw to atheism is to ESCAPE intolerance of ideologies, not to propagate it. There's nothing wrong with thinking that other faiths are outright ridiculous, but you don't have to act as if your sh!t doesn't stink because of it.

    April 13, 2011 at 8:20 am |
  4. jaysunstar

    When I saw the trailer for this movie I kept thinking, "Who the heck wants to see this"?. But after hearing it advertised on Christian radio and reading this article it became crystal clear. This is a Christian film. It has no business trying to market itself to a wider audience.

    Peluso is wrong. This is NOT a movie that average American would want to see in the first place. The sooner the big wigs in hollywood accept that, the better off they are. By keeping the Christianity out of a Christian movie, you turn off your only supporting demographic for this film.

    I can't even see high school girls going to watch this film. The only demographic it works for are Christian families. So let's accept the movie for what it is. Put Jesus back into the message and stop trying to expand your demographic to a bunch of people who clearly aren't interested in this type of movie.

    This movie will flop in the box office. Of course Christians will love the film and use it as a means to spread their love of God to non-believers. Non-believers will have little or no interest in this film. So fighting over the use of the word 'Jesus' is pointless.

    It's like Christian rock music. It's extremely rare that a Christian band can cross-over to the rest of the pop charts. And the bands that do that, often get shunned by the rest of the Christian community. This movie is for Christians. Let it stay there and keep Jesus in the film.

    April 13, 2011 at 8:07 am |
    • Fuyuko

      For me, the christian-element aside, it just doesn't look like a movie I would enjoy. I'm not really that into surfing, and while it was great she survived and has her life back, I'm not sure this would exactly be entertaining to me.

      April 13, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  5. steelerguin

    I just don't get all the hatred from those without faith in Christ over this movie. Don't go see it. There are a lot of movies I don't see because I feel they are contrary to my beliefs, but I don't go on message boards bashing people who want to see them.

    April 13, 2011 at 7:06 am |
  6. Karen

    My daughter doesn't "Know the Lord" or "Have a Personal Relationship with Jesus" (these people will never know how pretentious they sound), but reported back that she really liked the movie. She said that it had a Christian overtone, but that it felt relevant to the film, and that Carrie Underwood ought to stick to her day job.

    April 13, 2011 at 7:00 am |
  7. CD

    God forbid that some people believe in a Higher Power that can help get them through some very difficult problems that life can throw at them, no matter what faith they are.If some people are so scared of the word "Jesus"that they are turned off, then I really fell sorry for them.

    April 13, 2011 at 6:53 am |
    • Fuyuko

      I don't think people are scared, they just aren't into it.

      April 13, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  8. David

    Interesting how the industry powers tried very hard to keep the word 'jesus" out of the film's dialogue though the family's devotion to Jesus was a central part of the file. Those same powers are also quick to point out, when a movie's dialogue contains lots of foul language(by standard norms) and many references to Jesus Christ (in a mean spirited, vulgar way) they justify the use of such language as part and parcel of the films gritty realism. No double standard there. RIGHT!!!

    April 13, 2011 at 6:40 am |
    • jaysunstar

      The point of leaving profanity in movies is to help sell to a specific audience. Using the word Jesus in a positive way narrows your demographic to a smaller group of people which cause sales to suffer. The point of hollywood is to make money. The decisions to do what they do are not altruistic ones and they certainly are not personal ones. If they knew that they could make much more money by telling good Christian stories, they would be doing it. But American doesn't want that kind of movie.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:23 am |
    • Fuyuko

      It depends for me. Do they reveal every detail about this girl and her family? In any movie, lots of details are going ot be left out, including lotsa negative stuff. I don't think censoring the Jesus stuff out is right- but at the same time, lots of stuff that happened is also likely being censored... Why? To either make it a better film or to protect the family.

      April 13, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  9. Ifeeldumberforreadingthis

    I had to comment on this whole debate. You all do realize that Christians are pushing their beliefs on Athiests and vice versa by the way you are slamming each other for not believing whatever your belief is.. Why don't you believe what you want and what makes you happy instead of telling the other person that he/she is wrong.. This is a thread of hypocricy!

    April 13, 2011 at 6:27 am |
    • steve

      If that is truly what you believe, shouldn't you have kept it to yourself?

      April 13, 2011 at 8:16 am |
  10. Jeld

    The world is full of crazy believers and non-believers. Most of them can be found right here.

    April 13, 2011 at 5:19 am |
  11. Ian

    Religious fanaticism is boring. If God exists and is loving, he wouldn't need us to grovel before him.

    April 13, 2011 at 5:09 am |
    • Jeld

      You are correct. The point of church is not to grovel or even to worship, even though this is what most church services look like. God does not need our worship. We have nothing to offer him. He has so much to offer to us. The point of church is to renew ourselves and to 'practice' what it means to be Christian. I'll be the first to admit that I need to practice a lot!

      April 13, 2011 at 5:26 am |
  12. WOZ

    Excellent movie and story telling, awesome writing and directing as well as acting... except for Underwood.
    The storyline/ message was perfect and just what families need. Hilarious how such heated debates about what's in and what's out in the end story doesn't come up with all the trashy movies produced daily. But mention "Jesus" or "Christianity" and all hell breaks loose lol lol. We won and the movie was killer! We will see it again!

    April 13, 2011 at 3:17 am |
  13. andrew

    Its amazing how many of you belief that GOD owes you something. just because you are a good father doesn't mean you give your child everything he asks for.
    So if i pray he must answer the prayer he cant reject it for my good, yes she lost an arm but she gained far more than you can understand.
    IF your child asks you for a grenade, pin out and clip off, would you give it to him just because he asked. say he asks for vodka 5 gallons of it to drink would you oblige.
    NOTE: CHRIST is not forcing you to become his disciple. he says there is a problem either you see it or you don't, if you see it you can choose my way or go on your way. but it's all your choice

    April 13, 2011 at 2:30 am |
    • Will

      It's all your choice? Not a Calvinist I take it. There's a legit argument to be made that all our choices are warped by sin, even a "choice for Jesus"

      April 13, 2011 at 7:28 am |
  14. Brian

    "Their are a lot of fanatical atheists on here that don't seem to see the irony of their own hate towards people with spiritual beliefs.".........................................

    What do you mean?

    April 13, 2011 at 2:09 am |
  15. scroo yoo

    I dont believe in a god anymore myself

    That said,If this is a true story,and part of that story is the main characters belief in god,then why not make the movie with the religion left in?No one is going to make me go see it,no one is going to make you see it,and although I dont think I would enjoy the movie and wont see it,I do wish this girl the best,as she is already a better swimmer,surfing with one arm when I cant even swim with two.

    Those who force others to abandon their beliefs are just as obnoxious as those who force their beliefs on others.

    April 13, 2011 at 1:56 am |
    • LP

      Because people are hypocrites. They want freedom of speech, but only if it agrees with what they have to say. They want freedom of religion, but only of their own (including atheism). Very few people have the slightest sense anymore.

      April 13, 2011 at 2:47 am |
    • Z.

      I wouldn't say Christians force people to their own religion. They encourage you to be part of their religion, and hey, if you don't join, and they're wrong, then there's no hell for you to go to anyway

      April 13, 2011 at 7:30 am |
    • Eddie Hurley

      if you where right you would not have any to grain or anymore than anyone else. But if you are wrong you are in a world of hurt to me thats perry sad you are watching people to much the devil will show you all the hypocrites that does have one thing to do with God get someone who is right and see what you thank

      April 13, 2011 at 7:34 am |
  16. harvest

    I just saw the movie. It was a very good movie. It was a factual movie. Part of the facts were that the principals in the movie
    were deeply religious. How do you make a non fiction movie and leave out beliefs that were such a big factor?

    April 13, 2011 at 1:35 am |
    • Frank

      Well stated. I agree completely.

      (and I am an atheist myself)

      April 13, 2011 at 5:40 am |
  17. Scott Lay

    Beautiful the way the Human Spirit is Alive and Well!
    Love All

    April 13, 2011 at 1:32 am |
  18. Wayshower

    Their are a lot of fanatical atheists on here that don't seem to see the irony of their own hate towards people with spiritual beliefs.

    April 13, 2011 at 1:27 am |
    • Thade

      Yea I said that about Theist when the Oklahoma city bombing took place, and 911.

      April 13, 2011 at 2:33 am |
    • A Former Believer

      I would say that most of us don't hate you (Christians). We just think you're lost.

      April 13, 2011 at 3:48 am |
    • Servant

      @ former believer:
      That is the great thing about God, He allows you to have and form your own oppinion and to make your own decisions........... I just hope for some, that one day we do not find out that they were wrong........... Because the common sense is, when 2 disagree, most likely someone is wrong...............

      April 13, 2011 at 7:45 am |
    • GrammarNotSeen

      *There. Not their. Their indicates possession by a group of people.

      April 13, 2011 at 7:52 am |
    • jaysunstar

      Most atheists I have come across are NOT true atheists although they would like to believe so. They are actually ANTI-Theists. Just ask them why they don't believe in God and it quickly becomes apparent.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:16 am |
    • Another Christian

      "I would say that most of us don't hate you (Christians). We just think you're lost."

      A Former Believer, I would say the same about all of you. Most of us (I *wish* all of us) probably feel this way too. I don't hate anyone that doesn't believe in God, I just hope that one day they might change their minds. Keep in mind I mean that as an internal change of heart/mind, not someone trying to force the change onto people.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:16 am |
  19. Jesus

    I can't believe how many sycophantic rubes I attract.

    April 13, 2011 at 1:24 am |
    • doughnuts

      What does the "H" stand for?

      April 13, 2011 at 6:39 am |
  20. francisco

    Thank u jesus dor this movie=)

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

      Check the credits, Jesus didn't make the movie.

      April 13, 2011 at 6:38 am |
    • owned

      Well said doughnuts.. well said!

      April 13, 2011 at 7:53 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.