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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. Tom

    God conceals Himself from the arrogant, yet reveals Himself to the humble.

    This explains many of the comments here.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      That's a pretty arrogant comment.

      April 12, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      @Tom
      AMEN!
      Oh, the depth of the riches both of wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out... He has hidden them from those who are wise in their own eyes, but revealed them to the humble, and those of broken and contrite hearts...

      From the proud and of teh haughty of spirit God has hidden even the obvious!

      P.S.
      @ Markin

      There is nothing arrogant about speaking the truth!

      April 13, 2011 at 10:52 pm |
  2. Dennis

    Praise Neptune, for he has delivered unto his child a meal.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • walker

      Your mythology is faulty.

      April 12, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  3. MichaelR

    Why didn't god/jesus/mr. wind just not let the shark bite her freaking arm off? And if god/jesus/mr. wind doesn't want to do that, then why pray?

    April 12, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • frank

      It would seem that she didn't need that arm as much as you think she did. And, now you are talking about Jesus. Seems like HIS plan IS working.

      April 12, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Wisdom4u2

      You have the balls to question God? Seriously, Dude???
      I believe His answer to you will be as it was to Job,

      Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said:

      "Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?
      Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.
      Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand.”
      Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?
      On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone–
      while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?
      "Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb,
      when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness,
      when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place,
      when I said, 'This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt'?
      "Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place,
      that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it?….”
      Job 38:1-14

      Try reading the Bible sometimes, all the answers are in it!!

      April 12, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • LauraJT

      Wisdom4u2, from your quote it sounds like God thought the earth was flat . . .

      April 13, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  4. Austin Hayward

    I will not be viewing the movie simply because of its religious content. Religion needs to be kept to oneself.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
  5. Christian

    as for people thinking they have a personal relationships with jesus... they just think they do, but they don't. because he's been dead. Think that they do is just as whacky thinking onehas a personal relatiinship with Joan or Arc (long dead), Santa Clause (imaginary) or the singer Madonna (unless you have actually met her and do have a personal relationship with her).

    but the fact is, if some passage in a 2000 year old book of fairy tales (written by folks who did not comprehend gravity, photosynthesis, why rain falls or evolution ) s what got this girl through becoming an amputee then why not show it? Most of the folks I know undertsand that religion is for the weak and those who need fairy tales and stories in which they are "chosen" or "saved" to feel OK about themselves and the world. yes it is as silly and whimsical as beliving that 2 of every species of living being on earth fit on a baot (do the math, that boat would be as big as Texas!) but so what. The weak of intellect and mind can be bitten by sharks to, and their stories wil be told. yes, I'd watch the film and think "oh, poor dim thing... " but that's the true story.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • thoughts with accent

      By the way, isn't interesting -and ironic, that those ignorant fishermen from two thousand years ago who didn't know about gravity and other fancy disciplines, managed to create a movement that affected millions and millions of people all over the world which even changed the calendar system until today? twelve poor guys who cant seem to be silenced by the so-called-smartest minds today.
      Indeed ironic that those twelve fishermen managed to -even today, cause conflict and arguments amongst the most intelligent scholars of our day. Twelve uneducated fishermen still being mentioned and discussed today; THAT IS A MIRACLE, isn't it?

      April 12, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • runtumblerun

      well, actually, the "twelve fisherman" had historical help from the murderous reign of many, many leaders (see Inquisition, Crusades, etc.). only through widespread violence was christianity established, as is true for most organized religions.

      April 12, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
    • thoughts with accent

      hhmm, interesting. So you would say that most, or many, or at least some of the 'many' Christians today became Christians through violence?
      II can see how you could make a case that so many converts were made for Christianity a thousand years ago through violence. However, would that violence explain why so many say to be Christians today?

      II don't know much about others but I have never met anyone who's been forced 'at-gun-point' or 'sword-point' to become Christian; most people I can think of have come to believe or accepted as reasonably credible the 'story' reportedly told originally by the "twelve fishermen" and hence my comment. That's all.

      April 12, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  6. Rodney

    I can understand why it was a battle to get religion into the film. When people who have blind faith start quoting from the bible I completely tune out. Just like when someone tells me that they watch Fox News, I judge them.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  7. PolarisNC

    I saw the movie this weekend, and it does a very good job of showing how Bethany's faith is central to her recovery. I am a Christian, but I don't go to movies to be preached to. I was pleased that the faith elements were given prominence, but were not too heavy handed. Kudos to the producers and the Hamilton family for reaching common ground.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  8. joe

    I automatically lose respect for someone who feels they "need" god, rather than pulling through difficulties themselves. I wish all the best for the girl, but I don't care to see the movie now. And those who want to whine about non-Christian movies... two huge examples (Passion of the Christ and Veggie Tales).

    April 12, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • W247

      Joe
      What is pulling through their difficulties does mean relying on God? Does is make their experience any less real or tragic?

      April 12, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  9. LOL Wat R Facts

    So, to make a Christian movie ok to sell as a product, hollywood has to remove anything specific about what makes Christianity, Christian.

    Sure that makes complete sense. /sarcam Lets make a movie about Bhuddism, but instead of Bhudda being quoted, lets just say that, John McClean or Superman said it. That way its consumer friendly.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  10. Kiki

    There are over 2 billion Christians in this world, something like a third of earth's population and their beliefs, practices and histories vary. Whenever people start lumping all Christians together they're not only being bigoted; they're demonstrating that they're woefully ignorant as well.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  11. sh

    BOY ANYBODY WILL FIND SOMETHING TO GRIPE ABOUT WHEN IT COMES TO MOVIES. HERE WE HAVE A WHOLESOME FAMILY MOVIE THAT SHOWS MORALS AND FOLKS WANT TO GRIPE BECAUSE IT SHOWS THIS YOUNG LADY'S FAITH AND RELIGION. OK SO HERE YOU HAVE IT IF YOU DO NOT LIKE FAITH BASED MOVIES DON'T GO SEE IT AND SHUT UP. GO SEE YOU NASTY DIRTY MOVIE AND LEAVE THE REST OF US ALONE THAT WANT TO TAKE OUR FAMILY TO SEE A CLEAN MORAL RIDDEN FILM THAT HAS MEANING. YOU PEOPLE DISGUST ME.

    April 12, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  12. Scotty

    i am sure they will have a big disclosure at the beginning of the movie that says "actions depicted in the film do not represent the views of the producers" just to make sure they don't actually promote a Christian view.

    April 12, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  13. Jason

    I think its awesome there was a scripture in the movie, Im a christian and i would have went and saw the movie even if the star was Muslim or atheist. I like it when there is religion in movies cause it makes the plot deeper and the characters more real.

    April 12, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  14. Mike

    Freedom of speech means freedom to speak your mind without GOVERNMENT persecution. It doesn't mean that private individuals or corporations have to fund views they don't want or agree with. That studio is in the business of making money. If they believe a movie is becoming too preachy and therefore limiting their potential profits, they have a right to make changes to it.

    And what good did her faith in god do her while surfing? Faith is for kids. Grown up should have grown out of it by now.

    April 12, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • crucified

      belittling peoples faith.. real good approach.... actually in my view Atheism is for Rebelious Kids so Grow up. God made you, the World and the Rules...Deal with it!

      April 12, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • runtumblerun

      Both of these comments are great points.

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

      Actually, I was indicating that Mike's comments were excellent. Crucified's comments are not so well-considered. As someone who was raised southern baptist but moved away from christianity and other organized religions over several decades, I definitely do not hold my current opinions due to rebelliousness. And, in fact, most agnostic individuals and atheists that I've known have certainly not arrived at their beliefs by petty rebelliousness, but instead traveled a long honest journey to get there. In contrast, the passionate religious folks that I've known have had little interest in considering the opinions of others, and would generally seem to rather suppress people's opinions if it doesn't match with that of their local christian church. Incidentally, I, and other non-christians, don't have to "deal" with anything just because you believe in a christian god. I would die to protect your right to be a christian, but I have NO obligation to believe in your nonsense just because it makes you feel more comfortable in your small world.

      April 12, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • crucified

      @runterbun There were alot of assumptions in your post.. typical atheist comments to belittle the faithful to somehow not have to deal with the atheistic current condition. You do not want to say you were created because then you would owe someone something. Your Pride alienates you from God. There is no supression comming from the Christian. Your Pride suppresses you from the TRUTH.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  15. crucified

    there is link for those who are interested in what God may see in the earth and how we act and just how GOOD we think we are..... It is also good to put in perspective those scream don't judge everytime someone tries to hold another Christian accountable.................http://www.godtube.com/watch/?v=KL7WLPNX

    April 12, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  16. Kip

    Ever notice in movies these days its always a Jewish wedding....Wondering why?

    April 12, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • Frank

      It just seems that way to you. Ever wonder why ?

      April 12, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Ronald Hussein Reagan

      It's the Hava Negillah.

      April 12, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  17. fototherapist

    Man, I really hate all this Christian crap.

    April 12, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • johnnyb52

      It's to no surprise, but don't think it's just you.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • john

      its like, totally not rad

      April 12, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • JPOC

      The fact that they're making such a big stink about it proves their main mission will always be to shove their beliefs down everyone's throats. Sorry, but not ONE denomination, not even the really relaxed ones who worship the bible can argue against that – it's in every variation.

      April 12, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • frank

      While are atheists so vile and angry - wait - I know this one! THEY ARE ATHEISTS!

      April 12, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • Bob

      Lucky for you 99% of the movies out there are secular or worse.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  18. Krallen to Kona

    I agree completely. We are taking out Youth group to see this movie and I hope it really touches them and shows them to forget the world and be head over heels for Jesus. I wouldn't got as far as saying most Christians are bigotted. I know a lot of Christians that are humble and fun loving folk. See the world through the eyes of Christ :).

    April 12, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  19. Peter

    I am a Christian with a masters degree in film production with experience. I tried to contact Sherwwod church in Albany,GA about helping them making Christian movies and I was treated like trash . They make movies to fill their EGO, they are clicksh and love to be worshiped. Non Christians are more sincere and they can make better Christian movies. Blind Side was a great Christian movie wihtout being churchish.

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

      Sounds like you are the one with the ego and because they can make successful movies without your help, your bashing them. Real 'Christian" of you.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  20. JD

    Every Christian who is complaining about "persecution" or "freedom of speech" should keep this truth in mind: if Bethany had been ANY OTHER religion than Christian, there wouldn't BE a movie.

    April 12, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • John Roberson

      Sure they would of made it.. Just stick in a Holocaust theme and it's a movie

      April 12, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • W247

      Why is that?

      April 12, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • johnnyb52

      The fact is this. The movie makers of Hollywood would push their own agenda. Anything goes with them except true Christianity, this they avoid and even have gone out of their way to attack on all levels through the decades since the script writers code has been taken away. This is fact.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • SandWigger

      Right. All the Muslims and Jews on the pro surf tour must be bummed.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • Jared

      Last I checked there have been popular movies involving people of just about any religion. Especially when it comes to horror movies.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • ScottK

      I don't know, I'd go see a movie about a Hindu girl who had her arm bitten off by a croc but then becomes one of the worlds best cricketer's. Or a young budhist girl who gets her leg cut off in a tragic ox cart accident who then becomes a world class ice skater... It's not about the tragedy so much as the recovery from tragedy that makes a film. Heck, it wasn't the arm getting stuck under a rock that made 127 hrs good, it was how he got out that made it thrilling.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • LOL Wat R Facts

      Ridiculous notion. How many practicing Jews, Muslims or Sihks do you see surfing the pro tours?

      April 12, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • Ron St. Louis

      I agree. While I don't believe in any god I do agree that if it was a Muslim or Hindu character it would have never been made or so radically changed that you wouldn't be able to recognize the real life story.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • surfsouthbay

      JD you need to get real. Go out to Hollywood and see how many Christians there are. So your saying if it was pertaining to a Jewish person the movie wouldn't have been made??

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

      "John Roberson
      Sure they would of made it.. Just stick in a Holocaust theme and it's a movie"

      I don't know about that, but the day they make a movie set in the Holocaust about a blond, blue-eyed girl who loses an arm to a Nazi shark while escaping the Third Reich by surfboard... well, let's just say that I'll be first in line with my popcorn.

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

      It is not surprising that there was conflict regarding the use of scripture in this movie. It is politically incorrect to be a Christian these days – and no studio wants to be seen as being anything but politically correct. If this woman had been Jewish, there would be no problems with her Dad reading from the Torah or her attending a Bar Mitzphah – heck they even had one on HBO's entourage. The studios seem to have no problem with depicting Muslims as terrorists who read from the Quran just before they blow themselves up. But bring in the bible within a movie about a real life person who found strength from the words of that book and the gloves come off. The only thing that would not bring controversy is if she was in real life a shot guzzling, profane, crystal meth addicted surfer who did three ways with all the other surfers before passing out in a pool of her own vomit. Unfortunately for the producers who love to highlight those people this woman did not fit that mold as a goodie goodie Christian. Of course this challenged their low grade sensibilities. Good to see people stand up to these tossers.

      April 12, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • JPOC

      Muslims and Hindus wouldn't have made such a big deal about it like all of the diluted unicorn troll Christians have here. One day, us non-believers could only "pray" that they see the light and shut up for once.

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

      Well said LastCriticStanding!

      April 12, 2011 at 1:13 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.