'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. Eileen Shavelson

    f you want to explore spirituality and surfing together, in a non denominational way, I wrote a book called Secrets of a Kahuna BodySurfer; A Spiritual Adventure Guide. I too, live on Kauai, and I wrote this book with Hawaiian Spiritual traditions in mind, and I am Jewish. Ibooks, Kindle, etc carry it.Shaloha- Shalom and Aloha!!

    April 13, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  2. hilltop

    Great story of faith and triumph.

    Some of you self proclaimed atheists should do a better job studying your history and reevaluating your reasoning processes. Dawkins and Drew have conceded the possibility of God, why doesn't your less informed reasoning do the same?

    April 13, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  3. Doc

    Why not ask Bethany? I don't care about executives or anybody else's axe that needs grinding. Everybody's agenda has made this a much, much worse movie. Ask her.

    April 13, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  4. Ryan

    Aethists are nothing but a bunch of goofs.left wing morons. Who believe in nothing .

    April 13, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • SmartCharlie

      Why do you make this assumption? You obviously don't understand what humanism is, so why don't you do some research before spouting off false statements.

      April 13, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  5. SmartCharlie

    I have no problem with this movie embodying a storyline of Christian faith because it is a TRUE story and a REAL person who is very in tune with her faith, as is her family who play supporting roles in the story. I don't feel like the filmmakers are shoving Christianity down moviegoer's throats because it would have upset the integrity of this girl's story to remove it.

    That being said, I probably won't see this movie because I am not a Christian myself and don't really have an interest in seeing a film that embodies the concept of "Christianity as infallible truth." But that's the beauty of free will: I do not have to see this movie, therefore it's message is not shoved down my throat. Problem solved, everyone's a winner.

    But I hope the film does well; Bethany Hamilton sounds like an amazing person.

    April 13, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  6. Mike

    So many atheists on the Belief blog, ugh. Isn't there some atheist blog where you can wax eloquent about the meaninglessness of your lives.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • LeeCMH

      This article is on the main CNN.COM page along with a picture. I would assume this attracks lots of folks who are not just hanging-out on the Belief page.

      April 13, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • SmartCharlie

      Lighten up, dude. Atheists aren't your enemy. Just calm down and read another person's viewpoints that may differ from your own. You don't have to agree, just respect that there are differences in opinion.

      April 13, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • Rational Jones

      My life is hardly meaningless. I do charitable works here and now because I don't think I'll get the chance after I'm dead, but thanks for assuming that I'm bitter and miserable 24-7 because I haven't heard The Good News©. I'm just fine. Thanks for not caring.

      April 13, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  7. LeeCMH

    All I've seen of Christians is their activism trying to use government to limit my equal rights as a citizen of America. The face of Christianity: Tony Perkins of the hate group Family Research Council or Jerry Falwell who said "People with AIDS should be shot and buried like cattle with anthrax." If the movie were to be accurate, did the girl attend any anti-gay Christian events? Carry hateful protest signs to any funerals?

    April 13, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  8. Mohaudas Gandhi

    Faith... must be enforced by reason... when faith becomes blind it dies.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  9. whatever

    Carrie Underwood is terrible I don't care what she's in. Period.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  10. paul

    Who would anyone be offended by a Jeremiah quote which is really jewish and not christian? So, your not offending christians or jews with that one.............not sure why muslims would be offended since they believe in all the prophets of the Old testament. So, who exactly do these producers fear?

    April 13, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Rational Jones

      Who do they fear? Anyone who won't pay to see their movie. This may come as a shock, but Sony is in the business of making a profit. I can't imagine that their stockholders would like to hear "Yes, we lost $40,000,000 of your money on this movie, but we sure did get all of the Bible quotes in that the family insisted on! That makes it all cool, right?" I'm a stone-cold atheist, some of my favorite films are explicitly Christian, and I carry no animosity toward people of faith, but the moment that all of the tension and worry in a film is dissipated by someone quoting a few Bible verses then I'm done with that movie. Themes of morality, temptation, and salvation make for compelling storytelling. Having your film peak by having someone say "It's okay, because Jesus loves us!" is just a cop-out.

      April 13, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  11. dave

    I'm a professional actor (which means I make all of my money acting. it does not mean I'm a movie star) and I have something to say about this. there is a local production company who will only hire devout Christians on their films. NO other religion would be allowed to get away with this in this country. We're actors. We can act like Christians if we have to. This is discrimination, plain and simple.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  12. WowReally

    O.k., why is it ok for religious groups to pressure main-stream industries to have values portrayed that fit with their belief – but they are astounded that they are asked to do the same. Talk about hypocrasy! I'm not anti-christian, but the movie was a commercial venture. If you want full control of the content – produce the movie yourself and stop complaining about diluting your religion for the sake of viewers. P.s. did the family and the youth group counselor get paid for the rights to the story and to be a subject matter expert on the movie? It just seems like having your cake and eating it too.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • BrattySoul


      FYI-Sean Mcnamara director and producer of movie had many producers which included 2 Hamilton family members-McNamara interviewd the family even before the book came out as he approached the Hamiltons to do the movie about Bethany.

      Family was 'on set', given a rented beach house to use while 'on set', and the story was based upon Bethany's bio, which was written by 2 writers(one of which worked on the screenplay) AND Bethany Hamilton.

      The family was able to havce CRaig T Nelson in the movie and in the end, the finished prooduct represented what the Hamilton family weanted in regards to their daughter and her story.

      it would seem then that the family did have rights to this movie in and the subject matter of what should be in the movie–the youth counselor was on set as advisor-she is also represented int he movie.

      The story INCLUDES the faith of this family, its about using their faith to get through what happened to Bethany–that she received her strength from her faith in Christ and God. A large part of the story–why should her story be diluted so that its politically correct for ALL viewers–

      just dont go to the movie!!

      April 13, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
  13. Solomon

    Yes, it most certainly would have been said. To believers we cling to our only hope who is Christ. In this world of sin, we can still have joy in the Living God (even when all of you deny Him). We have freedom to be His even in times of pain and grief and not a slave to the pain of this world. This movie is just another example of the joy we have in Christ. Losing an arm to a shark – ok. We all will lose much more than that – we will all die. It's real – admit it and its due to the sin we humans brought into this world. But we have a hope – Jesus – who died that all who believe in Him will live and rise again on the Last Day when He returns. That is our hope. Those who deny this reject the greatest gift and in doing so reject the Giver of the gift – God. I'm sorry that you will be separated from God and His people for eternity.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  14. Olaf Big

    So, in the end the only thing that really matters is does the faith sell. How very christian. And the movie belly-flopped anyway, because it was too calculated...

    April 13, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  15. Lina

    It doesnt matter what any of you believe, the family got through this because of their beliefs not yours. They are making a movie about her and her beliefs are a part of it and should not be ignored as it is part of her recovery through this ordeal. They should not change anything because they might worry about offending someone, the story is not about any hateful athiests or other religious groups its about her.. Like someone said her, if you dont like it, dont see the movie...And when it comes down to personal tradgedy, athiests pray too, I have seen it... funny how they find God when something tragic happens to them and now need his help....

    April 13, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • Rational Jones

      "Like someone said her, if you dont like it, dont see the movie."

      And if you're asking a huge multinational corporation for millions of dollars to back your film and they offer the money on the condition that you take their advice on what they've seen to be profitable in their decades of experience, then don't whine like a baby when they balk at stuffing a film full of the sort of Bible-speak that makes a huge chunk of the potential audience walk out of the film. You want 100% creative control? Then raise the money yourself and make the movie on your terms. He who pays the piper picks the tune.

      April 13, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • BrattySoul

      @ 'Rational' Jones

      The family agreed to have Bethany's story told. THEIR STORY includes Christ. Whatever the agreement was between the producers/makers of this film and the Hamilton Family-which we do not know- it would seem the family had some decision about what would be shown in the movie and wow, even as to someone from their church being in the movie–how 'bout that?

      It would seem the Hamilton's had some input, else there wouldn't have been the scriptures that ARE in the movie.

      Also-Sean McNamara came to the Hamilton family even before the book was written with the idea to make a film about Bethany, before producers stuck their hands in to try and change her story to suit Hollywood. He interviewd the family when Bethany was 13, included facts not in the Bio, etc. Sony paid to have a beach house for the Hamilton's to live in while they were ON SET. Being 'on set' implies the family has a say in the movie-oh and hey wait a sec' there are Hamilton family members who are PRODUCERS of the movie.

      SO again, if you do not like the content or story of a movie


      April 13, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
    • Rational Jones

      "it would seem the family had some decision about what would be shown in the movie and wow, even as to someone from their church being in the movie–how 'bout that?"

      I'd say that that's quite common in the film business when telling a true story, and completely appropriate. There's no reason at all that the producers wouldn't look for actors who are also Christians. It makes as much sense as casting anyone else who can bring authenticity to a role.

      "It would seem the Hamilton's had some input, else there wouldn't have been the scriptures that ARE in the movie."

      Which makes perfect sense. They absolutely should have had input. It's just sensible. That doesn't change a single thing about my statement, though. The family knows Christ and Sony knows movies. Both sides should have input. But at the end of the day this film is a commercial venture funded by a company that has to show responsibility toward the owners of the business, not all of whom are Christian and all of whom expect decisions to be made with an eye on profit and not throwing away money just for the sake of including specific references to religion. Very few production companies, including the ones started by and aiming 100% at Christians, will say "we lost tens of millions of dollars but we made the family happy so I guess it's not all bad." Even companies like Miramax that aim at very narrowly focused audiences will spend quite a bit of time gauging the likely return on their film and adjust the budget accordingly.

      "Also-Sean McNamara came to the Hamilton family even before the book was written with the idea to make a film about Bethany, before producers stuck their hands in to try and change her story to suit Hollywood."

      Wait a minute. You're saying that Hollywood producers in Hollywood spent Hollywood money on a film and wanted to change it to suit Hollywood? I never would have seen THAT coming!

      "Being 'on set' implies the family has a say in the movie-oh and hey wait a sec' there are Hamilton family members who are PRODUCERS of the movie."

      And do you know how often the extended family of the subject of a film are invited to live right next to the set? Almost never. It's almost as if the producers of the film valued their opinion so much that they wanted them right there to make sure things were as accurate as possible and gave them preferential treatment that very few people in Hollywood get. Hence my surprise at how they feel that they were treated so horribly. Also, there's a world of difference between creative producers and the kind of producers who pay for things. You do realize that you and I haven't really disagreed yet, right?

      "SO again, if you do not like the content or story of a movie DON'T GO TO THE MOVIE!!"

      No need to yell, stranger. We're on the same page, I just know a bit more about how movies get made than you do. By normal standards the family got better treatment than 90% of the people out there whose lives were put onscreen, and I think that their anger is a little unwarranted. Were it just a film about people of faith I would have been happy to go see it. A lot of scripture quoting makes for terrible film in my opinion, so now I have no desire to see it. Problem solved? Are we still friends?

      April 13, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
    • BrattySoul


      No we do not agree.

      I responded to your reply that they were whining like babies because the producers wanted to give their 'advice' on the content of the movie.
      and replying in regards to this:
      'stuffing a film full of the sort of Bible-speak that makes a huge chunk of the potential audience walk out of the film"

      you replied to Lina and she stated don't go to the movie if you don't like the content, and that is what I shouted @you.

      All the other rigamorale you've included in your reply to mine is nothing more than padded spin to seem to the barely cognizant on this forum as you and i agreeing..hahahaha. I dont think so.

      I gave the facts and the facts are those who wanted to make the film approaced the Hamilton family,not the other way around which is what YOU SAID, and i quote 'you're asking a huge multinational corporation for millions of dollars to back your film ...'.
      The family agreed to have their daughter's story told and in agreeing to this with the expectation that SCRIPTURE would be included because it had been said and used to help Bethany deal with the new challenges in her life.
      No one here in the article stated they were treated 'horribly'. The crux of the article was that there was a fight to include that which was important to Bethany's story about the shark attack and afterwards. The arguments have been that the family shouldn't have that expectation because it is a Hollywood movie, made PARTLY with Hollywood money.

      No need for all this brouhaha just to expand on whatever you began to evaluate in your own mind and did not type out here. the first response is usually the response you actually feel.

      And again we did not agree, you just wrote it out to appear that we did.

      April 13, 2011 at 10:39 pm |
  16. Sarah

    Praise God! I am always happy to see God being glorified on-screen. Good things are so hard to come by these days, they are so focused upon self and leave God in the background (if He's even included, at all). All of these claims that people who are Christians can keep it to themselves - impossible! Jesus is not just of who we are, but is in who we are. You cannot have one without the other; that would be like asking for a bowl of ice cream without the ice. That's why faith has such an important place in this story. Without it, the story would have changed. Matthew 5 is a good read, is relevant to this, and is definitely recommended.


    April 13, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • Rational Jones

      "that would be like asking for a bowl of ice cream without the ice"

      There's ice in ice cream? Your knowledge of treats is just as impressive as your theology. Impressive.

      April 13, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  17. Larry

    It looks like your invisible friend in the sky was on the shark's side. At least the shark got a meal out of it.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  18. SteveA

    God may not exist, but organized religion proves the Devil is real.

    April 13, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • Uniquitous

      One can not exist without the other. Just sayin

      April 13, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • Fuyuko

      No good god would create a devil or allow it to exist. So, nope, don't believe in satan.

      April 13, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • BrattySoul

      FYI a true non believer would know he didnt have enough belief to deny God or the Devil.

      April 13, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
  19. Mohaudas Gandhi

    I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.

    April 13, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • Uniquitous

      I am sorry that you have not had a chance to meet Christians that are like Christ. If you are really curious, I would recommend you find some outside of church. Go to where serving Christians go. Find a natural disaster where Christian volunteers are giving of their time and money to serve others that are hurting. There you will see Christ in Christians.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • Jose

      Ghandi was a cool cat at times. 🙂

      April 13, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • Richk

      @ Uniquitous

      Give it a rest man. You never met the historical Christ so you don't know "what he was like".

      April 13, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • Mohaudas Gandhi

      A man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act

      April 13, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • Fuyuko

      We don't actually know whether Jesus sacrificed himself though. It is quite possible Jesus died because he was executed, and early christians rewrote things to make it appear noble, when it was simply that he was killed for breaking the law.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  20. johnnyc

    ok i've had enough, all you nay sayers who oppose God and any exsistence of him and Jesus are fools. It says clearly in Gods word psalm 14 "The fool in his heart says, there is no God, he is corrupt" you can turn to him in this life or after you die suffer. NO you will turn into a bug and come back to watch over us or even live on your own planet with many wives pleasures...you will burn. the only way to the Father is through Jesus. bye now

    April 13, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • T.

      Jesus stated that one who calls another a fool risks the same fate.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • mightyfudge

      So let me get this straight: your proof that God exists is because the Bible says it's so? No offense, but that is the very definition of Argumentum Ad Ignoramus.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • Jose

      Ill say to you what I said to the angry athiest. They have a right to bright forth their points. Its freedom of speach. There is room for civil discourse but saying that " your going to burn, bye" is not the right path to making your point and its rather insulting. IF you believe god created you then he also created your mind. Use it to argue your points.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • Richk

      sounds like trolling to me...

      April 13, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • Mr.CommonSense

      You're an idiot.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • hahafunny

      the bible is a great work of fiction.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • Fuyuko

      You realize that many people do not like Christianity just because of the way members behave? Telling people they will 'burn' if they don't believe in Jesus is cruel, and may not even be true.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
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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.