'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. teamroper

    Can anyone explain the difference between a "miracle" and "luck"? I believe this young lady had more that "luck" on her side.

    April 13, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • Phage0070

      Teamroper, the difference is about 3000 years of dogma, bloodshed, and prejudice.

      April 13, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • Kacie

      Luck is happen chance. It's something that occurs without a source behind it. You can't seek it or control it. A miracle is granted by God and is often the result of prayer. It is given by God's choice and we can seek it through asking Him. There is a source and power behind a miracle. It is a determination by God. In fact, many do not believe in "luck" as they believe God's hand is on their lives in the large things and small. Some people may say, "She was lucky not to have been killed in that shark attack" while Christians believe it was a miracle of God that He rescued her and is now using her story to transform other lives.

      April 13, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • Gary

      I don't know if I would have felt lucky after being attacked by a shark. I'm sure you can always come up with a silver lining. It was a miracle of god there wasn't a tsunami that day as well. She most surely would have died then because emergency workers would probably have been occupied elsewhere. So for me, the difference between luck and a miracle is faith. Now that I think about it, why couldn't she have been lucky that god gave her a miracle? He isn't handing out life-saving miracles to everyone. I'm sure plenty of people died that day in various accidents...yet she survived. Thank god for the luck.

      April 13, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • Augie

      If the shark had attacked a non-Christian then it would have been luck. And if the non-Christian surfer had died then it would have been God's will.

      April 13, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Garrett

      Miracle and Luck....I agree it could be both...but subjectivity is the essense here...To the observer it might be luck...but to the participant or those close to the person involved, it might be a miracle. Whether you call it luck or a miracle...it doesn't change the end result.

      April 13, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • Cindy

      If she was "lucky" she would not have had her arm bitten off.

      April 13, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • Luis Wu

      Miracle is what ignorant people call what they can't explain. Luck is random happenstance. Neither were involved here. Good medical treatment yes, miracles and luck, no.

      April 13, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • Ed

      The difference is faith.

      April 13, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • Augie

      @ Ed,

      "Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile."
      Kurt Vonnegut

      The difference between a religion and a delusion is the number of people who share it.
      Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.

      April 13, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  2. Joe Mahma


    Why is it people need to have "faith" in order to survive? If this girl were an Atheist, I doubt she'd just give up. Damn, we're really impressed with ourselves, aren't we?


    April 13, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  3. GhostDebater

    when I was younger I never understood LUKE 9:26...however,these days I see this scripture playing out in all areas of life. The scripture says if you are ashamed of him (Jesus) He will be ashamed of you when he returns in glory. I dont know why anyone would be ashamed of the Lord Jesus ....all he did was love us so much that he died a cruel death so that we can have our sins forgiven and live in glory with him ...that is NOTHING to be ashamed of...I for one will not back down, & if that offends you ...well it offends ME that something like this would offend you....JESUS is LORD !!!!!

    April 13, 2011 at 9:50 am |
  4. Ken

    If you use Jesus' name, you should use his father's name Jehovah.

    April 13, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • MarkinFL


      April 13, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  5. OldGoat

    "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."

    Ah, another person with imaginary friends.

    April 13, 2011 at 9:47 am |
  6. stefanus Nel

    oh please what's the big deal. She lost an arm. you use your legs to surf – not your arms. The balance factor can be mastered with one arm. If she'd lost a leg and was still surfing I'd think she's amazing.

    April 13, 2011 at 9:45 am |
  7. Luis Wu

    How utterly stupid and pathetic. Guess I'll be skipping this movie. Why do people still cling to archaic mythology and fairytales? I guess they're afraid they'll get sent to be TORTURED – FOREVER if they don't. That Christian god sure is a nice guy. Get a brain people!

    April 13, 2011 at 9:39 am |
    • BirdDog63

      Hey Luis, you sound like someone who has everything all figured out. So tell us, what do you think happens to your soul after you die? Or don't you believe in people having a soul? I'm interesting to hear your viewpoint on this.

      April 13, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • MarkinFL

      Soul? Haven't seen evidence of one.

      Personally, when I die I expect to be in exactly the same place I was before I was alive. We've all been dead before, life is this strange, temporary condition we are privileged to experience for a short moment. Enjoy it now, or waste it worrying about immortality.

      April 13, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  8. Tony

    A movie I can't wait to miss.

    April 13, 2011 at 9:37 am |
  9. FormerChristian

    Are we surprised that Christians have influence in some movies? After all Christians are the majority in the US.

    Now if the movie was about an scientist/atheist/non-religious-person struggling to fit in with a religious society, that might be interesting, as the non-religious are the group most discriminated against. (as evident by political under-representation)

    Three steps to become non-religious:
    1. Read the Bible/Qur'an/Book-of-Moron
    2. Ask questions
    3. Think about it

    (the order is not important)

    April 13, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • Ken

      If you read the bible with Christendom's doctrine in mind, you will be asking more questions than you find answers for. Trinity, hellfire, everyone goes to heaven, etc..

      April 13, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  10. Mark

    if you make a movie that includes faith and Jesus then put it in, if you want to change the movie and the faith the family had then hollywood stay out of it. I am glad they (the family) got to keep as much as they wanted and they were pleased with its ending. Hollywood two faced they want the good movie stories but they dont want to share the Name of the ONE who was so involved her being alive and that is JESUS! Stay out or share the story the way it was as they shared with hollywood. Love the movie .....she is a amazing but only with Him in her life! doctors yes they were amazing and He gave us them too.. 🙂

    April 13, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • MarkinFL

      Did he pay for their student loans? If not, I'll give him no credit.

      April 13, 2011 at 10:35 am |
  11. Jim Jones

    Is it me or would they even made this a movie if this girl wasnt semi-attractive? I think that's the real exploit of this movie...im sure there are some ugly one-armed surfer girls that wouldn't of been given the time of day... But yet this girl was all too happy despite this to sell her religion the best she could. I guess everyone is brainwashed one way or another

    April 13, 2011 at 9:18 am |
  12. Carol

    I will pray for all of you and please pray for me.

    April 13, 2011 at 9:15 am |
    • Luis Wu

      Oh yeah, please ritualistically chant some ignorant mumbo jumbo for me!

      April 13, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • Nancy

      praying is not a chant

      April 13, 2011 at 11:04 pm |
  13. jgp

    I think it is sad that the people who voice the most hatred about this subject are those who are the least informed. There is all this back and forth over what is or what isn't when the real message that Jesus taught was to have an individual relationship with God, our Father. Jesus did not push organized religion, in fact he rejected it. He did not cram it down our throat. He taught basic principles of life that are what most people call "common sense" – but people prefer to be ignorant and base their views of religion on opinions of idiots like Bill Maher who make their money on bashing faith and spirituality. Why is it that when faith helps someone through a serious life event such as this, some people feel the need to hate it and reject it? If you hate it so much just keep your misery and loneliness to yourself and don't go see the movie.

    April 13, 2011 at 9:13 am |
    • jgp

      *most people – not all

      April 13, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • Luis Wu

      It comes down to this – Either you're intelligent enough to understand that all religions are just archaic mythology, written thousands of years ago by members of a primitive society, or your not. Chrisitan mythology is not much different than any of the others. Just old myths and superst!tious nonsense from a primitive society.

      April 13, 2011 at 9:45 am |
  14. keith

    how can any one person say that someone else doesn't have a relationship with god. Too many of these 'faith based' individuals think they are the utmost authority on relationships with god. My god may not be the same god you have but that doesn't give you any right to say I don't have a relationship with god.....that's the problem with the world today, that people are too immersed in what others are doing with their lives and want to do whatever they can to change it, instead of worrying about their own life and how fat their kid is getting from eating McDonalds all the time. Geeez people quit worrying about who does and does not have a relationship with god....you might be surprised of who you think doesn't actually does but you are no authority of what a relationship with god really is

    April 13, 2011 at 9:12 am |
  15. godzilla

    this is funny...but remember people, arguing on the internet is like competing in the special olympics: even if you win, you're still retarded.

    April 13, 2011 at 8:45 am |
    • Kellie

      This is hilarious, and just about the truth.

      April 13, 2011 at 9:04 am |
  16. mark johnson

    “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,

    To air is human, to forgive divine?

    April 13, 2011 at 8:40 am |
    • Hugo

      It's err. Maybe you meant to drive home your point with an intentional error. If not, it's err, not air. Spelling is very difficult for some people. Easy for others. We are different. Sometimes we make tpyos too.

      April 13, 2011 at 9:09 am |
  17. Dave

    I am not a christian but took my daughter to see the movie . I thought the message portrayed what i consider to be the best aspects of Christianity . The movie was not preachy [offensive ] in any way and I would recommend it to people of any faith . It may have been a struggle but i think they got it right . A person would have to be some kind of ignorant to deny the motivational power of faith for some people and I am glad it was included .

    April 13, 2011 at 8:40 am |
    • Hugo

      Dave, I haven't seen the movie but you make a good point. However, I'd like to add that I don't believe that being preachy is supposed to be part of Christianity. Being preachy is a trap Christians fall into. It's a mistake, IMHO.

      IMHO, a well functioning Christian sets a good example by loving others, especially their enemies. The good Christian waits for someone to ask "why are you being so kind?" Once the question has been asked, it's acceptable to answer.

      Setting a good example all the time is really difficult. That's another aspect of Christianity, realizing that life is difficult. We need help. This help can come from a neighbor. After all, if you are a Christian, you believe God created your neighbor too. If your neighbor helps, then you have accepted help from God. (This is from a Christian perspective. I realize that not everyone believes this.)

      April 13, 2011 at 9:07 am |
    • MarkinFL

      I've known several Christians who have mooched off neighbors for years under the impression that God was helping them. That just leads to abusing a neighbor's good will. I help neighbors all the time, but I doubt some god created this heathen to go around helping his Christian neighbors.
      My first experience of this was while living in a college dormitory. One of our roommates was a born-again Christian that never seemed to have quite enough money to eat. We'd each take turns giving him something when he was short. He always gave praise to god for this :/. Anyway it turned out he was receiving a huge check(far more than any of us had) each month from the government to go to college (based on his father's disability) and he was giving well over half to his new church. When we confronted him on this he told us that he had been counseled that god would always find a way to provide. Apparently we were gods way of feeding him. You can guess where he did NOT get his next meal.

      April 13, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  18. jainsays

    She survived a shark attack. She beat the odds. No miracle. It would be a miracle if she survived without medical intervention. I wish so badly that this girl would take full credit for being shot out of a cannon and landing on her feet. She and her medical team are super humans, pun intended.

    April 13, 2011 at 8:38 am |
    • Hugo

      You can't prove a negative. That in mind, why did you assert a negative?

      April 13, 2011 at 9:00 am |
    • Rob

      Hugo - this message shows absolutely that you don't understand theology or logic. "You can't prove a negative." In logic, we call this the fallacy of ignorance. The burden of proof lies in the claimant who makes the positive statement (i.e. god exists). It's not up to us to prove a negative, it's up to you to prove the positive.

      April 13, 2011 at 9:08 am |
    • Hugo

      Rob, the negative is "no miracle." How do you prove a miracle didn't happen? You can safely state that you didn't observe the miracle. You can safely say "I don't think a miracle occurred."

      My point is that failure to observe doesn't prove that an event didn't happen. I have failed to observe a lot of things. I didn't observe my step-daughter's birth. Yet, I did observe my step-daughter this morning. (Assuming we can get past "I think, therefore I am" limitations.) I have high confidence my step-daughter was born. I don't believe she wasn't born simply because I didn't see her get born.

      April 13, 2011 at 9:42 am |
    • MarkinFL

      So what miracle are suggesting happened? Did she claim some kind of miraculous event? All I've read about is that a shark ripped her arm off, she was rescued and received some d@mn good medical care. The reason for this story is her determination to get back on her board. Others have survived equal or worse physical trauma, but her total story is compelling. Her faith was important to her recovery and perseverance. Nothing here required a miracle. Everything that happened is well within the boundaries of the normal world.

      April 13, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • jainsays

      Come on, Of course she and her family gives full credit to Jesus/Lord for all of it, attack to recovery. She wouldn't be a true Christian if she didn't. It's a test...of faith...and she passed, so she's in good with her Sky Daddy. in any case, Her story of survival is tremendous and inspiring. :-0

      April 13, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
  19. mary

    question for jaysunstar

    i have often heard people talk about this sleep and that the dead are waiting; however, there are many scriptures that state we will be with Jesus if we have faith in him when we die. Can you explain what you mean? I find it confusing...

    April 13, 2011 at 8:37 am |
    • Rob

      In the soul-sleep theory, you would be with Jesus the moment you die because without any thought or dreams the soul-sleeping dead will not realize the passing of time. Therefore the moment they shut their eyes to die, the next moment for them will be opening their eyes to the coming of the Lord.

      Not that I believe this anymore, but just trying to answer your question.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:58 am |
    • Luis Wu

      Scriptures? You mean the archaic scribblings from members of a primitive society? You mean the archaic, superst!ons and myths written thousands of years ago by ignorant primitives? Yeah, right, whatever. Get a brain.

      April 13, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • Phil in Oregon

      Trying to calculate heavenly things and processes with a mortal mind is real futility. Those things are inconceivable. God could try to explain them to you(as Jesus did) but it won't fit inside your skull.

      April 13, 2011 at 9:51 am |
    • PastorBlastr

      Mary, in the bible, "sleep" is synonymous with "death". The use of the word sleep is to illustrate that life never really ends, though it does seem so from earthly perspective. Jesus said that God is the God of the living, not the dead. So everyone who ever lived and died, is somewhere experiencing their life this very moment. And for the one's who have not put their faith in Christ, and think God is a mean tyrant who sends folk to hell, that's a cop out thinly veiled as intellect. They don't need God's help to get to hell, just to avoid it. God has given you a Door. If you choose not to enter in, how can it be anyones fault but your own? BTW, you believe in many things that are invisible. Wise children is what you are. Like my teenager who knows everything (i.e. nothing, yet)

      April 13, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • MarkinFL

      Invisible is not a problem. Without a shred of evidence is.

      April 13, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  20. razor

    only 1 arm left .I don't understand why you would risk losing another one,crazy!!!!!!

    April 13, 2011 at 8:36 am |
    • Hugo

      Do you truly not understand or are you just making a statement? If you truly don't understand, do you want to understand? If you don't understand and want to understand, I suggest you try to educate yourself. You can Google Bethany's name. You could Google "I am second."

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

      That's because you've never surfed.

      April 13, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • Luis Wu

      She's obviously not too bright. Afterall, she believes in an invisible, supernatural, mythological being in the sky. People like that are few ice cubes short of an igloo anyway.

      April 13, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • jainsays

      Shes young...and she has a zillon fans cheering her on, and a zillion media outlets paying for her success story, and an insanely supportive and loving family... but i thinks unconsciously she knows...this is it...and amazingly SHE got another crack at her one and only life...so she gonna do what she love, surf baby!

      April 14, 2011 at 9:32 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.