KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP)–Just a little over a year ago I was invited to Hawaii by Tri-Star Pictures to see scenes filmed for “Soul Surfer,” the dramatized life of Bethany Hamilton. You may recall, at the age of 13, Bethany lost her arm to a shark while surfing, and, despite the tragedy, has since become a world-class surfer. While lodged at the Turtle Bay Inn on the North Shore, I met the cast and crew, as well as Bethany and her devoutly Christian family.
After a series of questions one asks a young lady who’s about to have her life exposed on film, I looked at 19-year-old Bethany and said, “You’ve had a great influence on many people and obviously, the Lord has used this incident in your life to help others. But if you could go back to that day, would you have stayed out of the water?”
“Umm … no,” she thoughtfully began. “It was God’s will for it to happen. So much good has come out of what seems like a terrible thing, and it’s been an amazing journey. I’m still doing what I want to do. More than what I ever dreamed of. And I know that God’s in control, that this has been a part of His plan.”
Think that didn’t make my first trip to Hawaii tough to beat?
During a recent screening of the completed film, I was surprised but pleased to hear someone asking Anna Sophia Robb (playing Bethany) about the movie’s theme. Sadly, I found the answer coming from Robb to be somewhat toned down. The actress’s meditative though somewhat secular response included the notion that you must have faith, but faith in whom was not clarified. Were the producers attempting to appease both the religious and the non-religious?
This brings us to the Soul Surfer production itself. For such an affecting story, one that has touched men, women and surfing enthusiasts all over the world, the resulting movie is watered down (so to speak). Several scenes lack intensity or depth. Tentative producers, a studio’s fear of a Christian proclamation, and a director more suited to the staging of surfing sequences than intimate character development, has resulted in the condensing of the story’s emotional impact.
Bethany’s is a tale not so much of what was lost but what she found, yet that profundity doesn’t transfer onto the screen. We’re given a narrative that’s religion-lite, protagonists that are character-lite, and story structure that is situation-lite. For example, in real life, when Bethany took a church missions trip to a tsunami-hit third world coastal town, she had an epiphany. Disappointingly, this life-changing event is visualized on screen by Bethany’s horror at seeing chickens and goats in the street, and a little boy wandering around the beach, evidently afraid to go into the water. There’s no real anguish, just a limited budget that casts chickens and goats as stand-ins for desperation and squalor.
The film is more about Bethany’s determination to overcome than about her spiritual core, presumably in an attempt to garner the studio a larger audience than just that of the faith-based community. This is understandable, but it’s also taking the safe ground, which seems shallow, almost cowardly compared to the reality of Bethany’s life. It has the scenes showing the family in church, and Dad Hamilton holding a Bible by his daughter’s recuperating bed, but this is a story that demands a clarification of this girl’s inner self.
In fairness to the filmmakers, converting ethereal meaning to cinematic imagery is difficult at best, requiring a gentle artistic touch, as well as a spiritual integrity. If you want to see biblical principles and principals successfully brought to a scene, view “Tender Mercies” or the ending of “Places in the Heart.”
In the film’s favor, care has been taken to give young viewers a clean movie about wave-conquering athletes. Though the girls are always in swimwear, the camera never lewdly ogles them. And no one will leave the theater uttering, “How come nobody swore?” Objectionable language isn’t a part of the Hamiltons’ daily vocabulary, so swear words aren’t missed in the movie version of their lives. What’s more, there are positive messages about family and faith, two ingredients often forsaken in films aimed at a young demographic.
Hopefully, Soul Surfer will begin a dialogue between believers and those who don’t understand what people like Bethany Hamilton have found, despite what they’ve lost.
Soul Surfer opens this weekend and is rated PG. Learn more about Bethany Hamilton at http://www.bethanyhamilton.com/, and more about Soul Surfer at www.soulsurferthemovie.com. Phil Boatwright reviews films from a Christian perspective for Baptist Press and is the author of “Movies: The Good, The Bad, and the Really, Really Bad,” available on Amazon.com. He also writes about Hollywood for previewonline.org and moviereporter.com.