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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. Truth

    I'd hit it. Thank you.

    April 12, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  2. crabman

    wounder how the movie would have been had she been jewish

    April 12, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  3. iamsmarter

    I think God just bought a house next to me.. I will keep you up to date on if it is really HIM or not

    April 12, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  4. TeacherTeacher

    This is simply a film giant looking to make the most money they can from the largest crowd. Get over it people.....if you want to make money off of the story of your life....we might have to change parts of it!

    April 12, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  5. Blaqb0x

    I'll believe in god when she can pray and have her arm grow back.

    April 12, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • randy morgan

      no you won't

      April 12, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • TJ2540

      It wouldn't be called faith then.

      April 12, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  6. Joe B.

    Can you imagine what the gay community would say if a Hollywood studio wanted to produce a new movie about, say, Mayor Harvey Milk but keep out the "gay stuff" to put more people in a theatre seat? There would be an uproar because, everything he did, he did from the perspective of a gay man. So that would be a legitimate complaint – to dilute, or to hide, what a person is for the benefit of more dollars. An outrage! An outrage! But I'm sure this would be a surfing movie – and nothing more – if the family had not insisted that Bethany's faith be included. I'm sure it was hard to hold their ground - good job!!

    April 12, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • timethegreat

      good point. Or better yet, what if she were black and hollywood still went with Carry U?...aahhh sh**t!!! Personally I don't care one way or another about religion but they should try to be true to the story.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • Tim Blim

      Joe B.,

      Very well said. It's true. Hollywood and others who aren't believers preach "tolerance!" but only for their beliefs. Try to add the central point of the story – that her faith helped her recovery – in there and people cry foul.

      That is absolutely a double-standard and a bigoted point of view.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • W247

      Completely agree with you on this one!

      April 12, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  7. Mark4

    Message movie gets 5 stars in my opinion, Breathtaking shots of Hawaii. Saw it on http://www.trailblazerhawaii.com site. Good family entertainment finally.

    April 12, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  8. timethegreat

    Oh dear, here come the boxing gloves! BOTH sides need to take a moment and read the article here on CNN about the Civil War. In the mean time I'm going to go round up some guns and triscuits 'cause this whole country is going nuts! When people start using morals to fight political battles, they lose the ability to rationalize. Dogs and cats will start sleeping together...it'll be anarchy! This moive looks lame BTW.

    April 12, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  9. Phil in Oregon

    God is only as dead as you make Him. You can turn your back on Him, that's your choice. He will be waiting right there behind you whenever you decide to turn around. "I will never leave you, nor will I quit on you"

    April 12, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
  10. MovingMarketing

    Everyone regardless of faith forgets that making and selling movies are a business. The movie industry in out to make money on its product plain and simple. They tone down any non mass marketable ideals in all instances to gain a broader audience. If they market a movie to only one group of people they are limiting its appeal to people outside of its scope. Hollywood or any other entertainment venture should do its best to make the movie going experience enjoyable by all.

    April 12, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
  11. Dr Bill Toth

    It's pssible that this quote might apply to other areas of our ives; "Hollywood screams for freedom of speech but only if you agree with them. It's a very two-faced industry." Judgmemt binds us, neutrality frees us.

    April 12, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
  12. Ezra

    Maybe the Shark was very devote and faithful and was rewarded with a meal.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  13. AuntiCrist

    Kevin Sorbo? I didn't know Hercules was a Jebus freak!

    April 12, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  14. Berealhere

    Her story, her struggle, her faith. I read "Soul Surfer', and her religion played a MAJOR role in her recovery. Keep it in the film!

    April 12, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  15. Bemis30

    Ummm...where was Jesus when the shark was biting off your leg?
    Ummm...seems to me to be rather sadistic for Jesus to all of the sudden come into your life after this traumatic event...when
    he could of prevented the whole thing from the start.
    Ummm...Could it be possible that Jesus had absolutely nothing to do with your recovery?
    Ummm...Perhaps your recovery was entirely within your mind. All along you thought Jesus was carrying you...when in fact

    April 12, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • katie

      precisely.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • jammin4eva

      If our own Savior goes into any trial in His "recorded" life as a man, subject to the desires, temptations, and tribulations that all of us do, why would he keep us from them? Ours is not the lot of automatons, rather choosing to suspend the hold on us the world keeps, when Spiritual matters mean so much more with free will...

      Does your money give you a warm fuzzy? Or rather the unconditional love of someone in your life? If it is Love, did you use money or worldly means to secure that love? Whether you see the rest of it, just see that a believer will love before they judge every time. Life isn't about comfort, but proving humanity can rise above itself to treat ALL with love and humility...loving others as themselves.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • Dawn

      Jesus kept her from being eaten by the shark and Jesus kept her alive after loosing 60% of her blood when most people would have probably died. Jesus was there alright and he is there with her today as she is an inspiration to people who have had similar injuries – that you can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!!!!!!!!!!!!

      April 12, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • Mike in SA

      Uh, Dude or Dudette, you do know htat it was her arm and not her leg, right? As to where was her Lord when the shark attacked her? Right there with her.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • Jam

      Dawn says that Jesus arrived late and wouldn't have been there for most people...

      April 12, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • Lord2FLI

      @Dawn – It's just a dumb shark, you mean to tell me God couldn't sic that sucker on someone who won't kiss His butt?

      April 12, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • HarryW

      Good questions. I've never quite understood this all-powerful all-seeing all-present all-good God/Jesus thing. Cannot prevent accidents like this, cannot grow limbs back after amputation. Saves her from being killed, really? What about being lucky not to be too far out into the ocean? Reminds me of the nauseating stories of people surviving plane crashes as the only ones and thanking god, all the suckers who died on that plane were not worth "saving"??? God has a plan, yeah, right...

      April 12, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  16. Phil in Oregon

    Boy, the atheists just hate words like "I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you" Ever notice how hard they fight to keep anyone from hearing those words? Like hope is a BAD thing. Maybe more meth is the answer to our problems...

    April 12, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • Kona

      My question is why do people need hope? Maybe people needed religion to provide the hope in the middle ages, when there was very little of it. If people are than hopeless now that's really kid of a sad statement of religion. Does it really provide hope? In my experience it doesn't.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  17. Frank

    That is what she believes in and religion is a very important part in their lives. So if you are going to make a movie about someone, why would you leave out a very fundamental belief of that persons life? I think it is very insparational and it is sad the movie makers wanted to leave the name of the Lord out of the movie. Man things are getting really wacky.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Chris

      Its because they were trying to make money, not convert people to Chrisitanity. Its all about business, they're trying to make a movie that will appeal to as broad of an audience as possible. As soon as you start mentioning Jesus too many times it narrows the amount of people intersted in the movie.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  18. Neeneko

    Ah.. the definition of privileged... treating the lack of preferential treatment as oppression....

    April 12, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • Chris

      Well said

      April 12, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • Phil in Oregon

      The State of the Union – greedy pigs trying to push each other out of the trough to get more, not seeing that the trough is so full that nobody could eat it all...

      April 12, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • ThaGerm

      Ahhh the definition of Faith:

      Believing something despite all evidence pointing elsewhere and looking down on those whom do not share your view.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  19. Triple A

    I have seen movies and the crap Bollywood does put in movies and they didn't want Jesus mentioned.... lol Bollywood is a bunch of odd fella's.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Lord2FLI

      Are you talk about films made in India (Bollywood) or Hollywood? You do know there is a difference right?

      April 12, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • ThaGerm

      So we are clear, "Bollywood" is in India.

      Seems odd that you would know that and make this comment as it doesn't pertain to the article or this movie; although, I doubt "Bollywood" would have put any Christian references.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • Luke

      Bollywood is a nickname for India's film industry... you knew that right.... I bet you didn't and just though all the times you heard that term people were making fun of Hollywood.

      Joke's on you sucker!

      April 12, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  20. Spalin

    The only way to truth is through the FSM.

    Ramen.

    April 12, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Bryan

      May his noodley appendage touch you.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Thor

      Do atheists read the entire Bible? No, why would they? Do Christians read the entire Bible? No, why would they - since there's a lot in there that's really vicious, evil, and repulsive? There's a novel that re-tells the story of the Bible, including the good, bad, and the ugly bits. It's about Jesus and the Apostles fighting zombies.
      http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/167623593/king-of-the-dead-jesus-christ-saves-mankind-from-z

      April 12, 2011 at 12:29 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.