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Shortly after Bethany's recovery from the shark attack in 2003, her manager Roy "Dutch" Hofstetter planned to create a biopic about her. After several attempts to begin production on the film went nowhere, Sean McNamara and some new writiers were brought in to take over the project. In addition to using Bethany's 2004 autobiography as source material for the screenplay, McNamara interviewed the Hamiltons to learn more about the family conflicts that did not receive mention in the autobiography. Filmed on location in Hawaii in 2010, Robb wore a green sleeve on her arm so that the film's special effects crew could create the appearance of a stump in post-production.
Impressed with the quality of the final product, TriStar pictures greenlighted Soul Surfer to be released in 2,000 theaters instead of the original 300 the distributor had planned. Opening on 8 April 2011, the film was a box office success, earning over $43,000,000 domestically.
The story takes place in 2003, where Bethany Hamilton is living in Kauai, Hawaii with her parents Tom and Cheri, and brothers Noah and Timmy. Deciding to train for an upcoming surfing competition instead of accompanying her church youth group on a missions trip, Bethany disappoints her church ministry leader Sarah Hill by not coming along.
Bethany wins her surfing competition and, much to her delight, her best friend Alana places third. When Bethany invites Alana and second place winner Malina Birch up onto the winner's box, Malina resentfully refuses. When surfing apparel company Rip Curl offers to sponsor both Bethany and Alana, the girls are ecstatic and understandably optimistic about their future.
The night before Halloween, Bethany sneaks out of her home with Alana to go night surfing. The next morning, while Bethany's father Tom is in the hospital for knee surgery, Bethany goes off surfing again with Alana, her brother Byron, and their father Holt. While dangling her left arm in the water, a tiger shark suddenly bites her arm off just below her shoulder. While Byron calls 911, Holt gets Bethany out of the water and fashions a tourniquet for her so as to slow blood loss. Holt drives Bethany furiously to the hospital and meets the ambulance on the drive down the highway. Before performing surgery on Tom's knee, the Dr. David Ravinsky is called away to treat Bethany in the emergency room. That Bethany managed to survive despite a 60% loss of her blood the doctor credits as a miracle.
As Bethany recovers from her hospital stay, she and her family experience much stress because of the paparazzi that continually invade the Hamiltons' privacy. Swallowing her pride, Bethany is happy for Alana, who is participating in a Rip Curl photo shoot, even though Bethany is unable to participate due to her recent injury. Inside Edition requests an interview with Bethany and, in exchange for the interview, offers to pay for a prosthetic arm for Bethany. When Bethany actually tries out the stump, she is disappointed to find out that it is not weight-bearing and is, therefore, completely useless to her as a surfing aid.
After a short recuperation period of only a few weeks, Bethany blithely returns to the water to retrain herself how to surf with her family at her side. When she eventually re-enters competion, she thanks her main rival Malina for not taking it easy on her. Additionally, Bethan rejects the five-minute head start the judges have offered her. Unfortunately, Bethany can't seem to stand on her board long enough to catch a decent wave, so Malina wins. Depressed, Bethany decides to give up on surfing and even goes so far as to give away her surfboards to some fans.
When Bethany sees news coverage of the 2004 tsunami on television, her heart is moved to compassion. Choosing to focus on the suffering of other people, Bethany surprises Sarah Hill by joining the mission trip to Phuket, Thailand with the rest of her church's youth group. When Bethany arrives, she notices that the Thai people are afraid of the water, including a little boy. Bethany gets on a surf board and heads out into the water, hoping that doing so will inspire others to join her, which it does. Bethany realizes that she has the potential to be a great role model for people and for this reason decides to take up surfing again.
Bethany's father Tom customizes a board for her, attaching a string handle to it to allow her to hold onto the board while duck diving under the waves. He also offers her encouraging words, telling her that she has great instincts about where the best waves will form in the water. Bethany enters the national surfing championship and encounters her old rival Malina again, whom Bethany thanks for seeing her as real competition. Significantly behind Malina in points, and only seconds left on the clock, Bethany's instinct for big waves nudges her to paddle out to a section of the water that hasn't seen wave action all day. When a big wave forms, Bethany alone is in a position to catch it, and she does a fantastic job of riding it. Unfortunately, the judges rule that Bethany caught the wave after the horn ending competition sounded, so her performance on that wave doesn't count and Malina is deemed the winner. In a touching moment, Malina expresses her sincere admiration for her rival Bethany's grit and determination to get back on the board and insists on sharing the first place trophy with Bethany. Malina invites Bethany up onto the winner's podium, much to the delight of the crowd.
After the competition is over, several reporters ambush Bethany and pepper her with questions about her disability and the competition. One journalist asks Bethany what she would do if she had it to do all over again regarding going surfing on the Halloween morning she lost her arm. In what is probably the climactic moment of the movie, Bethany emotionally replies she wouldn't change anything that's happened to her because her experiences have allowed her to embrace more people with one arm than she could ever have done with two, referring to her opportunity to share Christ with a world curious about her disability. The end of the movie includes real footage of Bethany surfing, as well as past interviews and speeches Bethany has done with various journalists.
- AnnaSophia Robb as Bethany Hamilton
- Helen Hunt as Cheri Hamilton
- Dennis Quaid as Tom Hamilton
- Carrie Underwood as Sarah Hill
- Kevin Sorbo as Holt Blanchard
- Ross Thomas as Noah Hamilton
- Chris Brochu as Timmy Hamilton
- Lorraine Nicholson as Alana Blanchard
- Jeremy Sumpter as Byron Blanchard
- Sonia Balmores Chung as Malina Birch
- Craig T. Nelson as Dr. Rovinsky
- Cody Gomes as Keoki
- Brandscombe Richmond as Ben
- Arlene Newman-Van Asperen as Cydney Blanchard
- Nadeen Ayman as Jenny
- Tiffany Hofstetter as Rosemary
- Dutch Hofstetter Jr. as Brandon
- Bethany Hamilton as herself (archive footage)
- Alana Blanchard as herself (archive footage)
- Director Sean McNamara as Rip Curl executive
Shortly after Bethany's attack made headlines around the world, the father of Bethany's friends Chantilly and Tiffany, Roy "Dutch" Hofstetter, became the Hamiliton family's manager. In February 2004, Hofstetter declared in an interview the family's plans to bring The Bethany Hamilton Story to the big screen. The BBC reported that Bethany's biopic was scheduled to begin filming in January 2005, but the film production did not begin as planned. Time reported that production was to begin in late 2006, and Variety reported that Sony executive Peter Schlessel was backing the film and that $7.5 million had been invested in the project.
Production, however, did not begin in 2006, and in January 2007, Sean McNamara was announced to be directing the film. Seeking more material for the film, McNamara, producer David Brookwell, and Hofstetter interviewed the family and asked about any conflicts that might have arisen over Bethany's injury that were not mentioned in her 2004 autobiography. The producers learned that Bethany's attack led the family to question their faith, and that Bethany struggled with how boys would see her with her disability.
For years, the producers tried to raise funds to produce the movie. Sean McNamara, Michael Berk, Douglas Schwartz, Deborah Schwartz, Ron Bass, Jen Smolka, and Kara Holden worked on the screenplay. Before filming started, Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions acquired distribution rights for North America and most other territories.
In February 2010, McNamara cast the roles of Bethany, Tom, Cheri, and Sarah Hill for the movie; filming began in the same month in Hawaii. Filming the movie took forty days and was shot on 35 mm film. McNamara began editing in May that year, but more shots for the movie were filmed in Tahiti in August. Post-production company Engine Room worked on 450 arm-removal shots for scenes in which actress AnnaSophia Robb wore a green sleeve. All told, the final budget for bringing Bethany's story to the silver screen was $18 million.
In September 2010, TriStar pictures partnered with upstart company FilmDistrict to release Soul Surfer. FilmDistrict's original commitment was to show Soul Surfer in 300 theaters, but when executives viewed the final product, they committed to releasing the film in 2,000 theaters and investing $26 million in advertising for the movie.
Religious leaders screened Soul Surfer before it was released commercially. The Hamilton family protested when executives at Mandalay Pictures tried to reduce the film's religious content by digitally removing "Holy Bible" from the book Tom is reading from in the hospital at Bethany's bedside. Additionally, the Hamiltons wanted it to be known which verse of scripture Sarah Hill is quoting from when she reads Jeremiah 29:11.
Soul Surfer debuted on April 8, 2011 in 2,214 theaters across the United States and Canada. It ranked fourth at the box office on its opening weekend, grossing $10.6 million. According to Sony Pictures' statistics, 80% of the audience was female, and 56% were under 25 years old.
- "Best Film for Family Audiences" by Movie Guide Awards (won)
- "Best Sports Movie" by ESPY (nominated)
- "Choice Movie Drama" by 2011 Teen Choice Awards (nominated)
- "Choice Movie Drama Actress" (AnnaSophia Robb) by 2011 Teen Choice Awards (nominated)
- "Favorite Book Adaptation" by 38th People's Choice Awards (nominated)
- "Best Female Images in a Movie" by Women Film Critics Circle (nominated)