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Capturing the Faith of a Soul Surfer

By Hannah Goodwyn Producer - Bethany Hamilton is possibly the most well-known, current American surfer out there. Her fame is not just the result of her heroic survival after a vicious shark attack. What captured the world’s attention was her sheer determination as she competed and won surfing championships not too long after losing her left arm. That courage and her strong faith in God continue to inspire. Now, even more people can witness her story, as Soul Surfer, a movie based on her life starring Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt, released this past weekend in theaters nationwide.

Making Bethany Hamilton’s Movie

Seldom do people actually get their wish of having a Hollywood actor portray them on the big screen. In the case of casting Soul Surfer, the production team needed to find a young actress who could carry the story while staying true to Bethany’s passion for the water and love for God. Cheri Hamilton, Bethany’s surfer mom, had a casting epiphany as she watched Bridge to Terabithia.

“That’s her [referring to Bridge of Terabithia star AnnaSophia Robb]. That’s the girl that’s gotta play Bethany. She will make the movie,” Cheri recalls saying. “We got her and were so happy and thankful for that.”

When AnnaSophia Robb signed on and started spending time in Hawaii, she fast became friends with Bethany. Assuming this role presented its challenges for Robb, especially on a physical level with the surfing scenes. With Bethany doing the surfing action shots, Robb was filmed riding waves as she steadied herself on a sled connected to a jet ski. Co-star Kevin Sorbo, who plays a family friend, describes the surfing takes as nerve-racking.

“You're on the back of this sled and the guy's right there and you're holding onto this rope and standing up on your knees basically and you look back and you see this 10-12 ft wall coming,” Sorbo recalls. “You want to say, ‘You can go now! Start going!’ You get beat up. It's unbelievable what these guys do in the real waves. I grew up in Minnesota; we don't have a lot of waves. We go ice fishing, which I don't get.”

Director Sean McNamara and his special effects teams spent four extra months making Soul Surfer, working specifically on giving the allusion that Robb had no left arm. They painstakingly shot scenes multiple times, one with Robb’s arm covered with a green sock, a second one with her holding her arm above her head (so the artists could rebuild her torso), and then another without her in the shot to fill in the background with the rest of the cast.

“This is a visual effects movie,” McNamara says. “Ultimately, I hope nobody noticed how we did her arm.”

Something audiences will notice is the film's cast, including Oscar winner Helen Hunt, actor Dennis Quaid, and Country music artist Carrie Underwood, in her film debut. Hunt and Quaid play Bethany's parents, while the Grammy winner is seen on-screen as Sarah Hill, a spiritual influence in Bethany's life. Interestingly enough, Hill, a youth minister on Bethany's home island of Kauai, didn't know who Underwood was when her name was mentioned.

"To be honest, I’m not a Country music person... well I wasn’t beforehand. I live on a little rock in the middle of the Pacific, so I’m out of the loop..." Hill admits. "The more I learned about her, the more I got excited about her playing my role... and seeing her really wanting to support the whole vision of keeping God in the movie and being an accurate portrayal of who I was in Bethany’s life."

Soul Surfer Puts Faith on Film

Soul Surfer mirrors Bethany Hamilton’s life, one full of passion for people and God. Bethany's eldest brother, Noah Hamilton (who is also a producer on the movie) and the rest of the family fought to keep faith in the film.

“Our movie’s definitely a hybrid in Hollywood,” he says. “It’s a mainstream movie with a lot more religion than in the past.”

According to Hamilton, director Sean McNamara also was integral in keeping faith a focus of the film, as it is in Bethany’s personal life.

“Gotta thank Sean,” Hamilton says. “[He] had some angry moments working with writers. He’ll be the first to say, ‘They didn’t understand that Bethany’s foundation is her faith. It’s what motivates her. And if they can’t figure it out, they don’t deserve to be a part of this project’. I thought he was being a little bit harsh and was like, ‘we’ll help’. And he was like, ‘If they don’t get it, they’re never gonna get it and its not going to be able to drive the movie’.”

McNamara understood who Bethany is and how much her faith affects her life. Bethany’s inspiring story touched the hearts of her co-stars as well.

“Bethany was so positive in the hospital and throughout the whole experience and just has been a light to so many people around the world…,” Robb says. “The message that’s engrained through the entire script is about looking at the bigger perspective in life and not focusing on the smaller things, but moving on to the bigger picture God has for each of us.”

Actor Kevin Sorbo, who remembers hearing about Bethany while in Vancouver, Canada, was angry when he saw the news of the shark attack. Something about a child being hurt like that resonated with him. It’s come full circle as he is a part of the cast who is telling her amazing story on screen.

“‘To have a 13 year old act that way after the attack and use it as a positive instead of a negative?’,” Sorbo says as he recalls Bethany’s brave composure after the attack. “So many people don’t use negatives in the right way…. There’s not that many people that are double, triple, quadruple her age who would’ve done what she did. They would’ve been in self-pity. They would’ve felt sorry for themselves and she goes out there and shows the world that she can be a beacon for God, a beacon for Jesus and come out with such a positive message for the rest of the world. It’s unbelievable. As I have found out through life, everybody does have a story and She’s an amazing example to follow if something does happen to you. So my hat’s off to her.”

Tom Hamilton: A Father's Struggle

Perhaps the closest one can get to Bethany’s story, besides hearing directly from her, is to hear from her father. Tom Hamilton's reaction to the shark attack was not like the rest of his family’s.

“I was angry at God for quite a while. I was bitter,” he says. “I was angry and I didn’t understand why the God whom I love would let my daughter be attacked and lose her arm. And then I had my own pity party for a while.”

After a season of attending church, but not really entering in, Tom’s heart changed. It was while he, Bethany, and her brother Timmy were on an outreach trip to the Tsunami-ravaged coast of Thailand. There, he witnessed Bethany minister to a young boy, the sole survivor of a family of 8. Looking terrified as the boy entered the water with her, he smiled as he rode a wave to onto the beach.

“That’s when I gave up my pity party. That’s when God healed me when that kid smiled,” he says. “That’s when I said, ‘I’m over it. Thank you Lord. Let’s move on together’.”

Part of moving on was making this movie, a project Bethany was passionate to do. According to her dad, Bethany spent days praying about whether to do the film. She came back to him and said, “If I can give people who have no hope, hope. If I can encourage people to push through issues in their lives and inspire them, it’s worth doing.”

Prayer seems to be a focus of the Hamilton family. Noah says, “[His parents] were praying feverishly for two weeks prior to the attack for God to give them a platform, a way to reach the surf industry.”

Little did they know that the family's testimony and Bethany’s life would touch so many people even beyond the surf.


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Hannah GoodwynHannah Goodwyn serves as the Entertainment and Family producer for For more articles and information, visit Hannah's bio page.

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