'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. Martin

    An Atheist should not feel threatened by a movie about the life of a person of faith. If seeing a movie, that portrays characters with beliefs you do not share, is troubling to you – don’t go – that is your right. I doubt that movies change people’s minds about their beliefs – I loved the Movie AVATAR but I didn't leave the movie believing that it was based on reality. Movies can move us and deeply impact us but most of us don't make major live changes based on a movie. A movie about someone’s life should portray them accurately regardless of what they believe about anything.

    April 12, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • Fuyuko

      I don't think atheists are threatened.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • Martin

      Perhaps I should have said troubled – not sure what the right word would be. No offense intended.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      "Jesus Christ Superstar" is one of my all time favorite plays, yet I do not believe in a divine Jesus Christ. Still an interesting story when told well. There is absolutely nothing troubling or threatening about Soul Surfer. Her belief system is fairly common, her experience is not.

      April 12, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      ...Well, except for the shark.

      April 12, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Fuyuko

      Personally, I don't find religion or films with overly religious characters that entertaining. I go to see films for entertainment. I was raised religious and I'm familiar with Christian viewpoints, so its not that I need to have my conciousness raised on that.

      They should make the film as they want, however, realize that there are people who simply do not enjoy films with a religious message or where religion is too prominent.

      April 12, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Tre Vlac

      "In your face" for one's own religion is inspiring, for other's it's often nauseating.

      April 12, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  2. Boka

    These people of "faith" have a relationship with an all powerful being that no one can see, hear or prove the this being exists. Sounds like insanity, does it not?

    April 12, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  3. Religions are a pile of dung

    Bethany Hamilton, when I heard about this unfortunate incident, I wished you a full expeditious recovery. I'm glad you recovered well.

    If believing in a deity makes you feel better, that's great. Though, keep in mind that there are non-believers in your faith that also had 'miraculous' recovery! In other words, spirituality is more important than a specific religion.

    April 12, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  4. EricLr

    It's not about Hollywood being anti-Christian, it's about money (the TRUE god of Hollywood, as it were). Having lots of Christian references makes worldwide distribution a lot harder. And worldwide distribution is a huge part of the profits from any modern mainstream release. If you include any specific religion in a movie, you are limited its audience appeal to that specific group. Would a Christian go see a movie that's loaded with references to the Koran, where the Koran inspires someone to get back on their surfboard?

    April 12, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  5. Andy

    So would the studio treat her the same way if her actions were rooted in Islam? Hmmmm....

    April 12, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • JD

      I agree with you, except there wouldn't BE a studio. Nobody would touch that story!

      April 12, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  6. Joe

    This sounds like a great movie! I am anxious to see it. Hollywood truly needs to allow all topics to be portrayed in film. Portraying Faith in GOD is a truly refreshing thing to see in film. We have so much negativity already in movies that having something inspirational that makes you feel good is truly needed and what many are looking for these days!

    April 12, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  7. Denizen Kate

    Producers and studios want to make money, period. If they believe that keeping the religious aspects of the character to a minimum will allow the movie to appeal to a wider audience, therefore making more money, that's what they'll push for. Seems silly to me. I'm an atheist, but I have no problem with viewing stories about people of faith. If the Hamilton family are devout Christians, and their faith helped them deal with such a difficult ordeal, that faith SHOULD be portrayed in a movie about them. Key phrase being "about them."

    April 12, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  8. JD

    Sony is clearly just trying to maximize their audience: they want her faith to play a central role in her recovery, but don't want the film to be a "Christian" film that would shrink their audience. Big deal. Remember, Sony is paying for the film. It's their behinds on the line. The family could back out at any time, and not take the paycheck.

    April 12, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  9. chard

    jesus is coming soon...you can all talk to him this way when he shows up. that will be a hoot.

    April 12, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • Fuyuko

      And maybe Jesus will talk to you about your amusement at the 'comeuppance' of others.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • big mac

      and when Jesus shows up a billion people will be removed from this planet....THAT is why I fear Christians more than I do Muslim/Islamics...at least with them they are up front about just how they feel about those that do not believe. At least with the Catholics you can get absolution at the end. With Christianity-if you have not taken Jesus into your heart while living-you will be sent to limbo with everyone else.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  10. Mike in SA

    Going along in this vein, can you just see the treand now:
    The Life of a Person Claiming to be a God: We Intellectual Know Different (coming soon from MGM)
    The Life of Mohandas Gandhi (without mentioning Hinduism)
    The Life and Death of Madeline Murray OHare (without mentioning atheism)

    April 12, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
  11. I don't care if your atheist, why do you care I am Christian?

    If Christians are crazy, why don't movies bash Islam instead. If Christians are crazy won't they defend their religion by coming and killing you? and beheading you for making fun of their religion? Won't Christians burn your villages and homes, and kill their daughters for honor? Won't....wait, I seem to have gotten this all wrong. You attack Christians, because the probablity is Christians will not do that....yet fear Islam, should Christians start attacking back? It appears that making Hollywood afraid is the only thing that works. Read what the makers of 2012 had to say before you start complaining about the post.

    April 12, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • JD

      I don't know any atheists that are fond of Islam. Furthermore, name a positive representation of Islam in film. Name ONE. I can think of several negative ones: United 93, Not without my daughter, The kite runner, Syriana, et al. I respectfully suggest that you have no idea what you are talking about.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
  12. Drew G

    Coupel things quickly ...
    "It's not that it's a Christian movie, it's an American movie,"
    >Thank you for that ! common sense nice to see you again.
    "For me it was a hill worth dying on to keep God in the movie,"
    > Good for you ! you are not alone.

    What is wrong with us ( American ) why are we allowing our land our home to change so quickly so strangely, right in fron of our eyes.

    April 12, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • pat

      It is not for you to "allow" one way or the other.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • iamsmarter

      So quickly? So strangely? Are you kidding me? What is soo strange about people being able to believe in what or who they want? You must be uneducated.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  13. John

    Hmmm, what would Jesus do? What moral guidelines would an archaic text provide for such a situation? Christianity in America is such a Sham! Jesus and Capitalist-Corporate America, now there's a combo, I wonder how the majority bible-wielding population rectifies that obscene hypocrisy.

    April 12, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  14. Mike in SA

    Now, after reading all of the comments, it would have been very interesting had she been Muslim. I wonder if the same Hollywood individuals, being the PC freaks they are, would have attempted to keep he Muslim faith, Allah, or the big "M": out of hte movie? Highly doubtful.

    April 12, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • fran glass

      good point mike!

      April 12, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • fran glass

      ...that posted before i want it to...
      However, i view it from the other side. If she was muslim would all of the more extreme christians on this thread be so obsessed with the movie "accurately portraying her faith"? I spend a little time on CNN.com and the same people who make "god is love" comments and complain about intolerance of christians in this country are the same ones who say some truly vile things about islam on other articles.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • luvuall

      It will be interesting to see how this country comes to grips with Islam and if we practice what we preach (religious tolerance).

      April 12, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  15. pat

    The point of the movie is that good and evil do not exist.

    April 12, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • Jay

      WHAT? You must have been in the last row necking with your friend.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • Jaws

      Perhaps God sent the shark.

      No, no, just kidding. Presenting her faith in the movie would not bother me, a non-religious person, so long as it was done well and not preachy. Sounds like they did it. This movie is definitely on my list to be seen.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • iamsmarter

      Pat. I think everyone knows that there is a " good " and " evil ". I mean really my moms french meat pies are good and mine tend to be evil.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  16. Kona

    Bethany is a true Christian. She follows the teachings of christ and acts accordingly. All Christians should take a lesson from her. Because most Christians aren't like her. They are intolerant, bigoted, hateful people.

    April 12, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • CSmith

      In my experience, most Christians aren't like that at all. It's just that those are the only ones that make the news. Welcome to Sensationalism Media.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • Chris

      the ironic part of what you said is, its the other way around, most Christians aren't extreme or intolerant or bigots. a minority of religious protestants I have met however, are.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Fuyuko

      Christians are individuals and I can't really say 'all christians' are one way or another.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Scott

      Sure, I buy that many people who self-identify as Christians are decidedly un-Christian in their actions, but *most*? Really? How could you even begin to back that statement up objectively?

      April 12, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Kona

      @ scott:

      Every single Christian that I have ever met in person is exactly that way.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
  17. Gail

    Faith doesn't sell well. Haved her become a dysfunctional doper and single mother.

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

      The Passion of the Christ was a huge hit. There just don't happen to be very many movies about the Christian faith in a positive light. As much negative publicity as Christianity gets these days these days, a huge percentage of the country (and world) is still Christian and is certainly looking for movies they can relate to.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  18. QLorraine

    A couple points here: first, if faith was so central to the characters, keep it in there. If someone doesn't want to go see a "religious" film, they won't. I'm sure the debate was how to make it more "mainstream" so more people would go see it. But, Passion of the Christ didn't do so bad. Second: I totally agree that intolerance exists are both sides (religious and atheist). I happen to believe in God but my spouse doesn't. He's becoming quite militant and intolerant in his atheism. All the things he accuses the other side of being.

    April 12, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • fran glass

      i'm an athiest as well, but since your husband generalizes about religious people i'm going to make a generalization here too: Male athiests are frequently more aggressive, outspoken and intolerant of other's beliefs than female athiests. Anyone else noticing a pattern? lol

      April 12, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • fran glass

      also sorry i'm a heteros3xist jerk who assumed your spouse (as you stated) was both your "husband" and a man. Sorry Q. 🙁

      April 12, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • ThoughtProcess

      I've noticed this as well. I'm an atheist myself though I can't help but notice that every single religious reference in any CNN article receives dozens or even hundreds of replies from incredibly agressive athiests completely ignoring the first amendment (and 3rd for that matter). "Keep your stupid opinions to yourself", "Christians are all idiots", etc. It really does seem like the same level of close-minded bigotry so many people hate about some church-goers. Turns out there are obnoxiously intolerant people in all walks of life I guess.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • rafael

      @Thought: The 1st amendment has no relevance for people leaving comments here. And the 3rd amendment pertains to quartering soldiers.

      @fran: Males are "frequently more aggressive, outspoken and intolerant." It has nothing to do with atheism.

      @QLorraine: Atheists are intolerant of intolerance, which is commendable.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • ThoughtProcess

      @rafael Wait, the right of freedom of expression has no place on the internet?!?!?! Of course it does. 1st amendment is freedom of religion as well as freedom of expression which is exactly why movies praising jesus or bashing him are all fair. As are news articles. As are comments from Christians and Athiests alike. 3rd amendment is just me joking around though I recognize it didn't carry well. Yes, it has nothing to do with this discussion. Most people have no idea what the 3rd amendment is at all.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      I am personally quite militant about keeping religion out of government and my personal life. Other than that, have at it.

      April 12, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • rafael

      @Thought: it appears you don't understand the 1st amendment either.

      April 12, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  19. April

    So notes for the next person Hollywood comes calling to for your life story, get it in writing up front! Seems so ridiculous that they wanted to make the movie of her story but then change the foundation of the story (for her, her faith got her through this event in her life and helped her continue her dream). If you didn't want to make a religious movie, don't make a story about a religious person, what a concept!

    April 12, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • rafael

      It appears you don't understand the film industry very well. Movies are not made for the purpose of being authentic, they are made to make money. It makes perfect sense to tweak a story or its presentation if your goal is to appeal to a larger audience.

      April 12, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  20. Kat

    I'm an atheist, but am not bothered by including her faith in the movie. From this article, it sounds like her relationship with god is very important to her and played a big role in her recovery effort. The entire movie is about her, so why wouldn't you include it? It also sounds like it would be important to include specific scripture that inspired or helped her. Again, why not? It's what actually happened.

    April 12, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • CSmith

      Thank you for that honest and rational assessment. Too many staunch atheists have, in truth, moved beyond reason and act with just as much animalistic hate toward anyone who disagrees with them as they criticize religions and the religious for doing. It's good to see there are still some who are not violently allergic to words like God, belief, faith, and religion.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • Martin

      Thank you Kat. I am a Christian and I respect your right to not believe God. I'm glad we agree about how movies, that portray people of faith, should reflect the reality of their life including their faith. I would also agree that a movie about the life of someone who does not believe in God should portray their live and beliefs just as accurately.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • rafael

      @CSmith: where are these straw atheists?

      April 12, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Codepwned

      well im glad they let me know about the religious overtones. That's a movie I won't watch.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • Ryan

      I, too, am an atheist and agree completely with your statement. If her faith was a central part of her recovery, then that's what happened and it should be included in the story.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • I'mabeliever

      Kat! Thank you! I believe in Jesus Christ, but respect your right not to. I am not a crazy, radical Christian. Thank you for respecting the rights of Christians. I am sorry that my faith is misrepresented by others. What a wonderful world we would live in if we could all just give one another the respect that we each deserve.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • Ronald

      Agree – it's all entertainment – it's all elective – just so long as a movie doesn't inspire violence – have at it. By the way, does anybody remember all the uproar about the film Holy Mary? -. Theatres were afraid to show it because of all the threats.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • ScottK

      I agree. If you have a script with a pilot, he'll likely be shown in uniform. Script with ninja's is going to have at least one scene with them in front of a shrine with incense. Script for Jesrey Shore is going to include getting drunk and screaming at each other or pulling hair. If it was this girls faith that got her through then it should show in the film about a sufer girl who had a tragic accident and felt her faith got her through. I bet there would have been no controversy if it had been her faith in budda that got her through and they would have added a bunch of drums, incense and slow mo prayer scenes with budda belly's in the background.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • ScottK

      @CSmith – "It's good to see there are still some who are not violently allergic to words like God, belief, faith, and religion."

      Hey, I like a good magic show as much as the next guy, I just don't go home thinking what I saw was real.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Many atheists on here have supported the inclusion of her faith, even the *gasp* Jesus word. There are always a few people just stirring the pot, on both sides of the religion debates. My only objection was to the ludicrous argument about "freedom of speech" since this situation is not related to government interference. Its about two private groups negotiating the level of religious content in a movie. Its a financial/contractual and marketing issue, not freedom. Both parties have freedom of speech, thus they needed to come to a mutually satisfactory agreement.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:48 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.