'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. BlackCujo

    I'm sure BOOK OF ELI didn't have any problems revolving around the scripture...(PS I'm atheist)

    April 12, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • MarkinFL

      Its merely about target audiences and marketing, nothing more.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Micah J`

      Actually that movie didnt mention the word that absolutely terrifies Hollywood, "Jesus."

      April 12, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • walker

      BlackCujo, not all who mentions Scriptures in movies knows what that particular passage means. Most of the time, it is taken out of context. Atheist are easy target because they don't have the Spirit of Truth. Atheist are prone to believe everything as long as it is not about the Lordship of Christ.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  2. john

    it's amusing and sad at how many people will spew hatred towards Christians on the CNN boards. Fact is if the studios tried to keep Islam out of Will Smith's Ali, or tried to keep Judaism out of Schindler's List the protests would be loud and justified because religion is central to those stories. Sony would be so much happier if Bethany wasn't religious but she is and it's central to her story so it should be included.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • yeah right

      Oh boo hoo! The mean ol atheists are actually saying something in public against my oppressive majority! Oh boo hoo!

      April 12, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  3. Lee

    Why is everyone so upset? If Bethany's life is faith-based, the movie should show it. Whether we believe it or not, faith DID help this little girl heal mentally.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  4. Micah J`

    Its amazing to me that some people have nothing better to do then come hear and bash Christianity. Sad...

    April 12, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • Fobe

      Admit it, you came here to be bashed like the good little masochist you are.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • Micah J`

      Actually i came hear to read a TRUE story about faith, you came here to spew hate.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  5. Jimbo

    I agree, you can label anything Christian and make more money off of it than if you don't, especially sub-par items and entertainment. Like Christian pop music, it's horrible and non of them would even stand a chance selling records without the label "Christian". If it has Jesus written all over it, you can't say it's bad or ignore it, that would be a sin!

    April 12, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  6. Steve

    'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.' "

    Oh, right after I take your arm away though

    April 12, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • Tink

      It sounds to me like she's doing pretty well with surfing despite her arm being gone. Plus, if she hadn't had her arm bitten off, who would have made a movie about her or even care? Seems to me she ended up better all the way around minus the arm, plus now there are people who might be inspired in their own difficulties by her story.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • walker

      without Christ in Bethany's heart , there is absolutely no movie to make.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  7. Fobe

    If the shark had bitten off her head, would her head have survived for three days in the belly of the shark?

    April 12, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  8. ab_contador

    As soon as I find out something has religion in it, be it a movie or music, I write it off as worthless propaganda

    April 12, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • Marti

      Well, you won't have to dress warmly when you die.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • MarkinFL

      Uh well yeah. He'll be dead.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • walker

      Many of you keep talking about Christianity as a religion. True biblical Christianity is not a religion, it is a relationship with God. Jesus said, I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through Me. John 14:6.
      Do yourself a favor, ab_contador, get a Bible and read it. Who knows, you might just see the Light!

      April 12, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  9. Jeffrey J.

    "Hollywood screams for freedom of speech but only if you agree with them. It's a very two-faced industry." – what a true statement, not only about Hollywood but Liberals in general.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • Matt


      April 12, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • Observer

      Republicans love to trash Hollywood and then vote for actors like Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood, Fred Thompson, and Arnold Schwarzennegger. The ultimate in HYPOCRISY.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • MarkinFL

      AGAIN, this has NOTHING to do with Freedom of Speech. Their is no governmental involvement. No one is being kept from speaking their mind. A private company is free to decide what they produce. It is a private matter between the writer and the producers and has to do with contracts and marketing.
      This is not a 1st amendment issue.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • Marti

      You are so right Jeffrey. Hollywood has their head up their you-know-what. Ironic that they love to portray themselves as such free thinkers. But they all eventually grow up and live in the real world.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • GrammarNotSeen

      Hey black kettle, the black pot said to shut the hell up. Because regressives have NEVER EVER tried to stifle progressive speech. Please.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:06 am |
  10. Ray

    It's ironic that they would spend a great deal of their marketing dollars targeting religious groups then remove anything that would make the movie appealing to their target market. To smart for their own good.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  11. Dude

    You know what's sad to me is that the Christianity haters/bashers claim that Christians are such horrible hatemongers and yet the comments above toward Christianity and people of faith in general are so full of intolerance, hatred and vitriol – the very thing they accuse Christians of. Just shows you that human nature is for the most part evil regardless of what faith you claim (or not). And no, I don't claim any of these, my spirituality is somewhat of a mish mash of various philosophies sprinkled with my own long thought out views on life, faith, the world, internal peace, etc. It's actually funny that people are so afraid of a little blonde Christian girl that it would evoke this kind of response. Forbid that her story causes everyone in the world to slap their heads and say, "I just realized what's missing from my life!". Is that what these people are afraid of? That perhaps she'll grow up and run for president and make everyone turn Christian? Because all I can see are Christian armies pitched around the White House and Wall Street and Hollywood, poised to take over government, economics and media. Please people. If Hollywood producers have no problem supporting all kinds of other views – I just saw Eat. Pray. Love. recently and thoroughly enjoyed it, then it shouldn't be such a difficult stretch for them to represent a young woman's views that are an integral part of her life if they are trying to portray her story accurately.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • Dude

      Comments written below actually. I didn't know how this thing scrolled.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • ab_contador

      I never accuse christians as being hate mongers, but I do accuse them of trying to shove their beliefs down everyone else's throats and of wasting tremendous amounts of resources, time and energy that could be better spent making this a better place to live. Think about all the money poured into christianity in this country–what if it were put towards cancer research?

      April 12, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Nabob

      The anti-religious side does the same thing. Religulous, Paul, Dogma, etc. poke fun of religious belief and encourage you to think the same way. Is this "shoving it down someone's throat"? Clearly not. I have the option of watching these films or not watching them just as you do with any religious film.

      Regarding $$, my church participates in a lot of community outreach. From supporting the local food bank to building clean wells in Africa to supporting an orphanage in Mexico, a lot of our money goes into helping the less fortunate. Certainly, all churches don't operate this way but I suspect that the majority do. What do you do with your time and money to help others? What percentage of your income do you contribute to cancer research if this is a major issue for you?

      April 12, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  12. Cliff

    Being able to freely express an opinion OR tell a story is one of the great things about America. You can even express your disapproval without fear of prosecution for doing so. Being able to freely express (or not) the truth about a story is what makes this concept so great. I happen to be a believer but I have friends that are not. It's wonderful that this family is able to share their story and you have the freedom to go see it or not. If you choose not to go then great. If you choose to go that's great to. Hatred is not so great and that is detrimental to our society. The naysayers may even be right about religion. To bad it will be to late when the truth is discovered. Enjoy the story, whether you agree with it or not it is still truth and we need a lot of that these days...

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

    1 thing is for sure- people don't learn lessons very well. Go into ocean, get attacked by shark, go back into ocean.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • Brittni

      What if you get into a car accident? Will you never drive a car again? Not getting back into the ocean just because something bad happened doesn't mean you need to fear it for the rest of your life.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • MarciaMarcia

      There's a difference between someone accidentally hitting you with a car, and then going into the ocean or into the jungle where predators are actively hunting for food.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  14. KauaiLarry

    It is a SHAME that this movie is not open captioned! There are THOUSANDS of Surfers who happen to be deaf or hard of hearing who are missing out on this. There are MILLIONS of deaf or hard of hearing church-goers who are missing out, too.
    It is a SHAME.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • GrammarNotSeen

      Because of course there's no WAY it'll ever be captioned for post-release on DVD or anything.Get back to your henhouse Chicken Little.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:04 am |
    • Muffy

      W H A T ? ?

      April 13, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  15. Matt

    Wow. Why the lack of tolerance for ideas other than your own? Shouldn't the movie based on a true story, just tell the true story? If you want to watch it and leave the theater saying, "That girl gave God all the credit, but it was really the doctors!" or whatever that's your prerogative, but are you really so scared of Christianity that you want the movie to lie to it's audience and give the impression that the girl did not give God the credit?

    April 12, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  16. Bella

    Ya know what....
    I dont even know why this was an issue. That family beleives in GOD and GOD got them through the tragedy...Why all the haters? What gets you through tragedy?? You think its ok for people to make fun of YOUR family and your beliefs? This was a 14 year old KID, and while I personally wouldnt go back in the water it took alot of strength and determination for her to surf again. HER life...HER choice....What have YOUR kids done that is worth sharing with the world?
    Thats what I thought.......


    April 12, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • Doug

      Well, my children have done all sorts of things worth sharing with the world. However, I'll keep it to myself, and they to themselves. No need to make a big deal out of it. Please try not to be so defensive of a person you don't know, never met, and probably never will.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Bobo

      If GOD was such a great guy, why didn't he warn the poor girl AHEAD OF time that a freaking shark was about to bite her arm off. He could have sent her text message or just used his magic to warn her! But nooooo, he had to be a dick a let her go into the water so she can then PRAISE him for SAVING Her. Bleh.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  17. krh

    The only reason why anyone would get offended is because guilt and conviction is taking place in their lives. Bravo, Bethany for not letting Hollywood win this time! People do not realize just how big, how great, and how powerful our God really is. It is because of Him that she is alive today to share her testimony to the world.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • MarkinFL

      No, it was the lifeguards, medics and surgeons that are the reason she is living and breathing. However, her faith seems to have been a significant motivator in her recovery and return to surfing.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • douglas

      That's not true. There are other reasons. The studios want to make money, and if you make it too preachy people won't go. Just look at the Left Behind series with Kirk Cameron. That studio only makes movies that preach. They don't make much money. That doesn't mean someone is not feeling guilty. But the primary motivator for Hollywood is to make money. The second goal is to make a good movie.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • Doug

      You could also thank the doctors, the person who hauled her in from the water, all that jazz. Or are people not worthy of being thanked?(sorry, normally I'm pretty passive about this, but I'm feeling snarky)

      April 12, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  18. shackdelrio

    Using God to sell your movie. Brilliant strategy. They should have added a scene in which Dennis Quaid questions if President Obama was born in Kenya. The Tea Party would have rented out the theater.

    You can't sell your soul to the devil if there is no devil.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • Matt

      Your "logic" makes no sense. The producers of the movie had to be talked into KEEPING references to Jesus in the movie.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • Marti

      Oh pleeaaasse. It's a true story of how a girl was able to mentally survive a terrifying ordeal through her faith. HER faith. People like you who love to analyze it to death and put their own spin on it make me sick. And this has NOTHING to do with Obama and the Tea Party. You're in the wrong discussion, moron.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • walker

      God is Sovereign. He is always in control. He cannot be used by anyone. He cannot be used by anybody. He cannot be used by Hollywood. One day you will be judged by Him, you might end up in the same dungeon with the Devil. That day, you will believe that there is God and Jesus is His Holy Son.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  19. Dave

    It only makes sense to keep the movie real, if that's what got her through it, then that's what got her through it. I don't know what got Def Leppards drummer through his loss of his arm, but playing drums with one arm seems like it would be way harder than surfing. My point being that while she found inspiration in her faith, Rick Allen found his not only in another drummer's encouragement but in his own indomitable human spirit. On top of that he makes a hell of a lot more money than she does! Duh, Winning!

    April 12, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  20. bikesandtacos

    I don't understand why everyone gets so upset about religious references in media. Especially movies. I'm agnostic and it doesn't upset me or offend me to hear someone else's religious beliefs referenced in a movie, let alone a true story. They're not saying "this is what you should believe!" All they're saying is that her faith helped her get through this experience. Nobody should be offended by that.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • Hugo

      I very much agree. From what I can tell about Bethany, she's the kind of Christian who centers her life around her relationship with Jesus. People can argue all they want about if Jesus is God or if God exists. Doesn't matter because none of us get to decide for Bethany. We decide for ourselves and she decides for herself.

      A story about Bethany should be a story about Bethany and not a story about how Sony wants to make money.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • douglas

      Because Hollywood's first goal it to make money, and second to make good movies. This is a guess, but historically characters who quote the bible in Hollywood movies are portrayed as nutcases or comic relief in movies. And if they are not then it's a Kirk Cameron, Left Behind type of movie which sounds preachy. Most people don't go to the movies to be preached to. They can go to church for that. That's just my guess.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • grist

      I am an atheist and of course believe that there was no divine intervention and her beliefs are delusions. Howver, the story should be true to the actual events. If her religion was a big part of the story, then it should be in the movie.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • Adam

      It's not about offending anyone. It's about the difference between a Christian movie and a movie. Honestly, now that I know it's all holy roly, I have no interest in seeing it at all. There goes at least a couple tickets sales.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • RichG

      You're correct. If you're going to change it around so that it appeals to the non-believers, then don't make it at all. It's like making Broke Back Mountain into a christian movie, doesn't make sense.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • Q

      Its not about being offended, its about not wanting to hear it. A lot of people assume that every time people don't wan't to include something that pushes a specific faith that its because they are afraid that people will find it offensive. That is not the case. Many non-CHristians simply do not want to be preached to in the movie and would not see a movie that did it. By not pushing one religion they are increasing the chances that people of other religions would see it as well as avoiding the christian movie stigma that would prevent a significant number of people (both Christians and non-Christians) from having a desire to see the movie subsequently increasing their profits which are the reason why they are making the movie in the first place

      April 12, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Jam

      The straight fact is, the studio wouldn't have balked at overt christian content, except that it tends to hurt ticket sales. This is because a large part of the movie-goer market is turned off by religious themes. I'm one of them.

      The market segment that enjoys movies of that nature is highly vocal, so it seems larger than it is. But you can't pay for high production values off that group alone.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • Nabob

      I'm interested to know if anyone considered Paul a religious movie? The movie made it clear that we will someday "evolve" beyond belief in God, that Christians are ignorant hicks, that religion holds you captive against your natural instincts to curse, drink, and live for your reproductive organs. I felt that Paul was a bit preachy – anyone else?

      April 12, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • Jane Doe

      So, essentially what some of you are saying is that the movie should not be true to who she is because it is offensive to you? Here is an idea. Don't go see it!

      April 13, 2011 at 12:27 am |
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About this blog

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.