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'Soul Surfer' opens after fights over depicting faith
"Soul Surfer" is a feature film about Bethany Hamilton being attacked by a shark and getting back in the water
April 12th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

'Soul Surfer' opens after fights over depicting faith

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

"Soul Surfer," the feature film based on the true story of surfer Bethany Hamilton being attacked by a shark and her journey back to surfing, opened last weekend in the fourth spot on the box office charts - partly a testament to its appealing family-friendly message and a marketing campaign that heavily targeted religious groups.

But even though Hamilton and her family's faith plays a key role in the film, many audiences would be surprised to learn that the question of how to show their religion in the film caused huge debate on set.

"I think to get anything in the film was a battle," said Sarah Hill, Hamilton's youth group leader at North Shore Christian Church, who was played by Carrie Underwood in the movie.

"Basically, what you're doing is you have all these people who want to make a movie about Bethany and they don't know the Lord and they don't have a personal relationship with Jesus. For what we have in the movie it was such a battle."

In one scene, Hill's character is shown counseling Hamilton as she struggles with living as an amputee. She reads from Jeremiah 29:11 " 'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.' "

The morning they went to shoot that scene, said Hill, who was on set often, "Twelve producers, me and the director were all sitting at the table and they all are just adamant about the Scripture not being in the movie. And they were saying at least let's not have the reference in it."

"For me it was a hill worth dying on to keep God in the movie," she said.

Tom Hamilton, Bethany’s father, said, “In my heart of hearts I wanted as many Christians as we could get to play parts in the movie. They just have a different spirit about them. ... Craig T. Nelson, who is a really strong Christian and goes to our church in Kauai, I called him and begged him to be in the movie.

“A lot of the producers didn’t want to go too overboard because they thought Christianity doesn’t always sell well,” Tom Hamilton said.

Kevin Sorbo, who plays Holt Blanchard, the father of Hamilton's best friend, said, "Sony (Pictures, the film's producer) was afraid to throw in the word Jesus. They said you can have God but not Jesus. They were worried about that.

"The studios, you can't really fight them," he said. "Hollywood screams for freedom of speech but only if you agree with them. It's a very two-faced industry."

Sorbo said Sony wanted to take out another scene in which Bethany Hamilton wakes up in the hospital. Her father, played by Dennis Quaid, is shown reading a Bible. He reads to her from Philippians 4:13: "I can do all things through him who gives me strength."

Tom Hamilton said the studio rented a house for the family during the filming so they could be on set every day.

“They changed the script a lot,” Hamilton said. “Dennis Quaid would come up to say, ‘Hey, this doesn’t sound right, we need a Scripture here.’ The script was in constant motion, it changed on the set even.”

“They listened to us. We had some pretty heated discussions. Everyone saw how passionate about it we were, getting the message we wanted out there,” he said.

Rich Peluso, the vice president of AFFIRM Films, a division of Sony Pictures, said the studio made no efforts to whitewash the Hamilton family's faith for the movie. He points out that Jesus is mentioned twice in the film and that the family's faith is central to the plot.

On set, he said, "There were certainly lots of discussions," specifically about the inclusion of Hill's character quoting Jeremiah.

"There were some that voiced the opinion that may have made it sound too faith-focused," Peluso said. "The counter-argument was, 'Well, if her character uses those words and doesn't attribute them to the Bible it seems like she's stealing them.' We came to the agreement the best thing to do was to use the Scripture there."

The biggest question the movie's producers were trying to determine was, "How do we have it come off (in a way) that is authentic to the family's faith and doesn't push it too far so that it appears to the viewer to be forced in?" he said. "We didn't want it to appear we were pushing in faith to appeal to the faith community."

The studio made a big push to attract faith leaders to the project, setting up screenings for pastors and ministry leaders. But it's hard to characterize "Soul Surfer" as a Christian movie.

Like the hit movie "The Blind Side," though, the characters in "Soul Surfer" are decidedly Christian.  The movie opens with Bethany Hamilton rushing into a beachside church service because the Sunday morning waves were just too good to pass up.

"It's not that it's a Christian movie, it's an American movie," Peluso said.

In 2003, when a tiger shark attacked the 14-year-old Hamilton near Kauai, Hawaii, the story gripped the nation. Just three weeks after the attack, Hamilton was back in the water learning how to surf with one arm. A year later, she won a national surfing title.

Battles over how to portray religious themes in movies are becoming more common, as Hollywood becomes more open to addressing faith and marketing movies to religious audiences but worries about alienating nonreligious audiences or viewers from other traditions.

“After all the back and forth - and there’s always back and forth - it’s always best to err on the side of authenticity,” said Michael Flaherty, the president of Walden Media, which has helped produced the Chronicles of Narnia franchise and other Christian-themes movies.

“It actually is not in your commercial interest to secularize something like that, people will reject it,” he said of “Soul Surfer.” “People think they are making these decisions to broaden their audience but what they end up doing is narrowing it.”

But Flaherty said he thought “Soul Surfer” struck the right balance. “To see a movie where she wasn’t talking about her faith … it would have flopped,” he said. “It’s silly to narrow (the family’s faith). It’s like someone saying, ‘Let’s make a movie about Bethany but not talk about surfing.’”

Today, Bethany Hamilton is a professional surfer. In 2010 she was ranked 23rd in the world. "The shy kid has gone on to have a legit pro surf career despite her massive physical impairment," Joel Patterson recently wrote in Surfer Magazine, "and, in the process, she's inspired uncountable people struggling against cruel twists of fate."

Hamilton has long been outspoken about her Christian faith and the positive role it played in her recovery.

"We work with a lot of films, but the Hamiltons have to live with this for the rest of their lives, so that balance was important to us," AFFIRM's Peluso said. "I think we threaded the needle after a lot of work."

Tom Hamilton said Peluso constantly went to bat for the family with the movie, adding, "There was some give and take, but everything that was very important for us to portray ended up in the movie. We were very happy over all with the movie. We just wanted the real story told.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Movies • United States

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soundoff (2,051 Responses)
  1. Brandon

    I'm a Pantheist / Pagan and I say that if you're going to make a moving about someone's life / experience, then you should include the things that are important to that person (INCLUDING THEIR FAITH). Geez, what's wrong with the world today?

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

      *movie

      April 12, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  2. She's full of it

    She's so adamant about her religion and that everything she does revolves around Jesus. And it seems a lot of other people are backing her right to "potray" her own beliefs in the movie. She had to fight tooth and nail to get execs to "listen" to her and make sure Jesus is in the movie. It really makes me wonder if all that money she is getting for the movie is going directly to the church since that what her life revovles around. I'm not into basing Christians but I'm forced to live a country that is controlled by evangenlicals thinking their way is the right way and use their faith as a mask to keep their prejudices from being seen for what they are. Just because your religion makes you think a certain way doesn't mean I have to. Oh wait I do! Because if they don't like something they form a huge voting union to keep the rest of us from living a life they don't want us to. Keep your faith out of MY politics!

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

      What are you rambling on about? Get to the point already

      April 12, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • no way

      You are free to form a group of like minded individuals and vote according to your beliefs. There are some who would want to keep your beliefs out of politics. Why do you want to deny others rights that you yourself have?

      April 12, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  3. nick

    a cokehead Preaching

    more offensive than any bible quotes

    April 12, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  4. ObvUsername

    "Hollywood screams for freedom of speech but only if you agree with them. It's a very two-faced industry." No, Hollywood knows that if it's a "Jesus" movie it'll go straight to video. They're not denying you "free speech" (in the movie their are paying a lot of money to make, advertise, and distribute) they're defending their profits and giving an inspiring story a wider audience.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  5. BD

    You can't fault Hollywood for being inclusionist. They wan't their movies to appeal to the widest audience possible without excluding anyone and I for one do not fault them for it (its far better than the opposite). That being said, they often shy away from Chrisitian topics for the same reason that a public firm doesn't interview 20 white middle age males for executive positions without interviewing a female or minority candidates; perception.

    That being said, I'm glad they came to their senses about this film. Trying to tell Hamilton's story without including her faith would have been like trying to make Shindler's List without references to Judaism.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  6. RJ

    I'm glad to hear everyone is so accommodating and accepting of religion in film. I hear there's another movie in production where the main character is a Muslim who relied heavily on Islam to see themselves through a difficult time. It's refreshing to hear that to have the Koran quoted during the movie should be no problem.

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

      I'm sure some nut jobs will have a problem with that, but most Christians I know would just avoid the movie.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • MarkinFL

      One would hope that everyone here that is supporting the inclusion of the Christian faith in this movie(which includes me) will also support the positive message about the Muslim belief in another movie. Any that do not are, by definition, complete hypocrites.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • MarkinFL

      Matt, do you then suggest that non-Christians should avoid "Soul Surfer"?

      April 12, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • Matt

      I suggest nothing. It is completely up to each person what they do and do not spend their money on. My experience tells me that many Christians I associate with would likely avoid a movie they deemed to be "Muslim propaganda"... not stand out front to protest it, not post nasty comments to a message board... just avoid it. Likewise the folks posting negative comments on here about how this is "Christian propaganda" have the option to do the same.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • MarkinFL

      Are you suggesting that this film is "Christian propaganda? or would your friends do so? Just trying to see where you are coming from on this because I can see no difference between the two.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • Matt

      Mark you seem to be following me around missing my point:
      Me: "I suggest nothing."
      You: "Are you suggesting..."
      Me: "folks posting... comments... about how this is "Christian propaganda""
      You: "Are you suggesting that this film is "Christian propaganda? or would your friends do so?"

      See? Probably not. The subject of my sentence is "folks posting comments on here", the idea that this movie might be propaganda would be theirs... not myself or my friends. In the sentence about other hypothetical films being viewed as "Muslim propaganda" the subject is my Christian friends.

      April 12, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • Matt

      BTW, the point was that people who think a film is propaganda... (it makes no difference WHO the people are or if the film IS ACTUALLY propaganda or not) have the option to avoid the film. This is not hypocritical, it is not illogical – it is called common sense.

      April 12, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  7. Jan

    So.... we don't want to "force" religious references on the movie watching public but we don't mind gratuitous gay characters. What I mean by that is we have shows like Modern Family where the gay couple is central to the plotline and then we have shows like the old Gray's Anatomy story arc where the orthopedic doctor suddenly "became gay". Not in any way central to the story telling so why have it? Hollywood often likes to throw in a gay character for no reason other than they want us to see gay characters. Many more Christians in the US than gays so why not show "regular" characters for whom Christianity is important?

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

      Because Christianity is common, thus "boring". Gay is still controversial and thus "interesting". It is all about marketing. Hollywood hits the jackpot if they can get a good religious boycott going. That has always been a guarantee to double or triple the box office take. I think that is why you do not see so many boycotts anymore. The Christians seemed to realize that rewarding the studios was not exactly working toward their goal...

      April 12, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • Sam

      I really enjoyed your post. I believe in God, but noway am I a holy roller. I am getting tired of seeing all the Gay stuff being crammed down on most of the shows I watch. It started really bugging me on the Shield. I don't see why many of the shows have to have a Gay character, but they never just have regular Christians. It appears they make all the Christian either fanatics and over the top, or serial killers. Far as I know, Jesus never asked for anyone to be killed.

      I am tired of having gays being shown as normal everyday people, yet Christians are not. I do like the Booth character has a strong religious view, yet functions as a normal person on a show called Bones. I like that fact Hollywood won't bash Jewish or Muslim religions for fear of backlash, yet they scream that Christians are crazy. Really? Then bash Islam and see that that gets you!

      April 12, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • She's full of it

      Wow a christian upset by gay people. I never would have thought that would happen. thanks for your tolerance Jesus. Hopefully the bible doesn't say anything about black people or else christians will have to put them down too.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  8. SharkBait

    I heard that Bethany forgave the shark that attacked her, and the shark was so amazed by her compassion that he saw the light and accepted Jesus in his life! He now preaches the Gospel to all of God's sea creatures!

    April 12, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Maddog3584

      The shark turned vegetarian after accepting Jesus Christ as his lord and saviour.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • heebiejeebie

      you probably catholic. catholic believe you can preach to animal. protestant do not belief that way.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • GrammarNotSeen

      PUH-RAAAAIIZEE JEEZZZUUZZ

      April 13, 2011 at 8:08 am |
  9. Todd

    This is a true story ladies and gentleman. This character is a Christian, and if the directors attempted to remove the references to her faith from the movie, it would have been a fiction. We must be true to the story of this young lady's life. If people are offended by that, I would echo what someone has already said. It is not true tolerance if it is only for the people you agree with.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • Eric Cartman

      Is it also true that her dad is Dennis Quaid and her youth group header is Carrie Underwood ?

      April 12, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Todd

      I should have specified based on a true story lol. They were hired to portray these real life people. Part of the job of being a performer is to capture who that person is, and Quade and Underwood would be wrong if they did not try to capture all aspects of their life in how they portrayed their roles, including faith.

      April 12, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  10. mike

    the sweetest name on earth is the name of Jesus.

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

      and he lives in Tijuana

      April 12, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • Eric Cartman

      Sorry it is Hershey's and to a lesser extent Reese's

      April 12, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • She's full of it

      No it's not. Candy is the sweetest name, and she is awesome!

      April 12, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  11. Steve

    LOL, RHHaith, you have no further to look than yo0ur own televangelists to see the answer to your question...they are lined up to take classes on how to fleece the flock to obtain their mercedes, rolex, pinky rings....

    Faith is fine, religion is a scam.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  12. Matt

    I want to make a movie about Mother Theresa. Here's the thing though, it may offend Hindus. Any way we could make Mother Theresa a Hindu in our movie? No? OK, maybe we just water down the whole "religious thing" then... it's really not central to the story – she's really just a nice lady doing nice things.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  13. ominous_music

    The family wanted all those references in the movie because they are evangelists and are told and bred to spread their cult far and wide and they see this hollywood work as a way to do that. If god or jesus or anyone else had anything to do with a tiger shark ripping this poor girl's arm off, then I am sure he would not be welcome as a guest at the dinner table, despite what they say to the press. The fact of the matter is that this girl has a lot of heart and character to come back from such a traumatic event and if she wants to give away the credit to her mythical friends, then so be it, but really there is no place for the evangelism in a movie telling the story of tragedy and comeback. This is NOT a "true story", it is a fictional representation of an actual event and as such can and should be shaped by the needs of the studio, not the demands of a fundamentalist cult.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • Matt

      Yes. You probably have the credentials to tell us what the real story is better than the people that actually lived it. Can you please share those with us... just for the people not willing to blindly follow your wisdom.

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

      Again, it cannot be true tolerance unless it is for everyone, including the ones you disagree with. This is a true story of who she is and faith is so deeply a part of who we are as humans, even if it is not Jesus (yourself, world, etc.). As a Christian, my prayer for you is you would know the peace that I have come to know in Jesus. You may not want to hear that, but I believe someone who is as direct as you deserves that I respect you enough to be just as direct.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:05 am |
  14. Stu

    As a surfer, I'm inclined to be an atheist so as to avoid the sharks and/ or any other message Buddha might want to send my way.

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

      Of course those with deep religious faith will say "God/Buddha/The Flying Spaghetti Monster will send you a message whether you believe in them or not."

      But that is just how it goes, lol. Don't mess with the Flying Spaghetti Monster.....you may not believe in him.....but he believes in you!

      April 12, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • walker

      Stu, Buddha will never have a message for you. He is not eternal. he doesn't care about your soul. Jesus cares for your soul. That is the reason He died on the cross. he shed His blood and offer you forgiveness for your sins. But He cannot forgive you unless you ask for forgiveness.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  15. Michael

    If God exists, God works through the human spirit. Otherwise, everything is an "act of God", no matter how cruel or pointless. It is one thing to use this inspiring personal triumph to argue for a divine plan – but google the video of that starving African baby dragging itself away from the vulture that follows it, then tell me how that fits in to your divine plan. And don't even start with how I fail to see the divine goodness in that situation.
    I am a Christian, by the way – but I also believe we are the hands of God; it is up to us alone to make the world into God's kingdom. If we fail, there will be no divine intervention. We are responsible for good and for evil in this world.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  16. RHHaith, Houston, TX

    "He points out that Jesus is mentioned twice in the film and that the family's faith is central to the plot."

    Wow, two whole times? I wonder if Hollywood is sponsoring seminars in how to maintain a greedy lust of riches while still marketing to Christians? I've heard the film is wonderful. Thank goodness Kevin Sorbo and the Hamiltons are promoting the film and expressing their faith. As hard as Hollywood may want to deny Jesus, he will still make his name known among all the nations.

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

      "greedy lust to riches"...you mean like the preacher man with his hand and/or plate stuck out demanding tax free dollars from you?

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

      LOL, maybe the televangelist with the rolls, rolex, pinky rings, and million dollar house can answer that question for you...

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

      i stay in thailand, and preacherman for christian prison ministry help many people have a better life when they get out of prison, so it not a problem to give the money. i sorry you do not have a confidence in a good preacher man because you only read about a bad preacher man on CNN

      April 12, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  17. Myself

    Her story is very inspiring. So is her belief in her faith. As a Christian, I understand that faith can get you thru any situation. It is what gave her the strength to keep surfing. It is what got her through a difficult period in her life. To those who don't believe, that is your choice. Everyone is free to do as they wish. This movie is telling her story, it needs to be told correctly. If you don't agree with it, then don't go see it. However, its a story about her (with her faith) overcoming a shark attack. Its not about how evil you are if you don't believe....

    April 12, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  18. Doc Vestibule

    I don't understand how a biographical film of a devoutly religious woman could exclude specifics of the faith that gave her strength.
    If Sony has a problem with it, they shouldn't have optioned the rights to her story.

    April 12, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • Steve

      Maybe the family shouldve been sure it was the right move before attempting to cash in on the story. You do know that responmsibility runs both ways right?

      April 12, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • Wrong!

      Its just a story and Its their business! Sony, MGM, Coca Cola know what sells. The more you make this about a single religion, the less people will go to see it......Bottom line is they bought the rights to the story and they could have made her a Buddhist if they wanted.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:05 am |
  19. debbie

    to God be the glory!!! God's will WILL be done...even in hollywood!!!

    April 12, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • what planet u from?

      so when he murders everyone that's okay because it just sort of happened rite?

      April 12, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • guest

      psycho

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

      Umm... if he murders "everyone"... we'll all be dead so (unless you believe in an afterlife)... who cares if he was right or wrong in doing so? Also, in order for "him" to murder everyone he would have to exist and be all-powerful so again... not sure I'm following your logic here. Which side are you arguing exactly? Wow, and Christians get labeled as illogical?!? Just, wow.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • MarkinFL

      Matt, yours is poor logic. By your logic, you could never argue against something you do not believe in by pointing out the logical absurdities of that belief. Since doing so does NOT imply belief, your argument is without logic.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  20. Really?

    I don't know what's so confusing to the studios. Portray it as it was, and advertise it as it's portrayed. That simple. As long as people know what they are heading into the movie theater for and paying money for, they can make their decisions accordingly.

    I'm a spiritualist, I believe in God, but I have some big issues with the church. Would I go to see this movie if I knew it was heavy on traditional Christian themes? No, but I would live and let live.

    Would I be angry if it were portrayed as a non-Christian movie and I went to see it and it was chock-full of dogmatic themes? Yeah, honestly I would be.

    It should not be about censoring this family. Make it, make it accurate and advertise it accurately. Make your money honestly Hollywood, and if you don't make millions on each movie then maybe you need to consider (gasp) getting back to paying reasonable wages, having reasonable budgets, and not NEEDING to make millions (and therefore not NEEDING to censor the truth).

    This girl got through on her faith, you can't leave that out without mutilating her story worse than her arm!

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

      Faith is fine, religion is a scam.

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

      They really do not care about the content beyond what they think they can most successfully market. Clearly they were concerned that an overly religious story would not attract the audience they wanted to target for this movie. However, they will do everything they can to help make up for any loss in one target group by targeting another(i.e. the christian community). Its all about money, not ideology.

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

      Guess we could mention Mohammed or gay or something and be OK. Just wondering if most of the people on the set were Jewish and didn't like the word Jesus? But Jesus is a part of this world because He saved us from it.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:16 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.