BY Chad Pata
Eight years after losing an arm to a shark, Bethany Hamilton is still surfing and sharing the joy the ocean brings her
It’s a long way from Hanalei to Hollywood, but that journey comes to an end this Friday as Kaua’i’s sweetheart Bethany Hamilton brings her story to the big screen nationwide in the film Soul Surfer.
Based on her autobiography, it traces Hamilton’s life during those tumultuous months when she went from an up-and-coming surfer to a shark-attack victim to a national icon and eventual national surfing champion. It is a story made for the silver screen, and despite early reservations about it, Hamilton and her family are pleased with the results.
“She did an amazing job,” says Hamilton of Anna Sophia Robb, who plays her in the movie. “It’s not me, but I’m just happy with the way she portrayed me, and the overall film turned out so much better than me and my family had hoped for. We were a little nervous combining Hollywood with a true story. You never know what’s gonna happen.”
Artistic license is status quo with the Hollywood set, but the Hamiltons kept close tabs on the filming to make sure it stayed true to her story and beliefs. There was a small brouhaha concerning the portrayal of their religious beliefs when an editor Photoshopped out the words “Holy Bible” from the book Dennis Quaid, who plays Hamilton’s father Tom, was reading at her bedside. But after expressing their concern, the words were replaced and the film-makers used their license for less sensitive areas, like building the drama in the surf matches.
“The cattiness between the girls in the movie was fictional,” says Hamilton, “but I didn’t mind because the girl who played Malina is a Kaua’i girl (Sonya Balmores Chung), so I was glad that she got a part. In competitive surfing there are definitely competitive vibes among all the girls, so it was all right. But not too many scenes were made up.”
This love of the water led the 13-year-old Hamilton to amaze the world with her rapid return to the ocean. Her attack happened on Halloween in 2003, and less than four weeks later she was back out riding waves. The emotional toll such a tragedy would inflict on most people would keep them out of the water for a lifetime, and the replaying of the worst moment of your life in a movie would be something you would avoid at all costs.
But not Hamilton. Instead she got involved in the process of making that very scene, worried not about her own memories, but about the nightmares it might cause for others.
“I’ve healed really well from it so it wasn’t too bad, and it was cool ’cause they let me go into the editing room a few times and give my feedback on how things were put together,” says Hamilton. “I’m really happy with it because it is not too intense for young kids, which is what I was worried about. It is just how it was – just quick, in and out of there. No one saw nothing.”
This simple statement of concern for others over herself may capture Hamilton better than any movie ever could. Once the promotions for the film are over with, she plans to return to her normal life: traveling the world over seeking the perfect barrel as a professional surfer.
She recently founded a nonprofit called Friends of Bethany in hope of supporting shark-attack survivors and traumatic amputees. But Hamilton knows that all wounds are not always readily apparent on the outside, and she hopes this film will help people in pain the world over.
“I know that a lot of families are going through rough times, or have or will, and I hope I can help encourage them to just push on and keep together,” says Hamilton. “Our family has been together through it, and it has made it so much easier to just encourage each other. Definitely God has been our stronghold through this all, and I am just so grateful for him.
“Also, I want to encourage people with their body image. Looks aren’t everything, and just be happy with who you are. The inner beauty is what matters most. Lastly, I want to get people excited about surfing. It is such a beautiful sport, and it’s fun to share that.”
Playing the role of young lady whose story is so well known is no easy task. In order to help Robb get into the role, they brought her out to Kaua’i for a couple of weeks to spend time with Hamilton and experience how she interacts with her family and the ocean.
“It was really fun getting to know Anna Sophia. My mom and I suggested her to the movie people to check out, and she actually got the part, so that was cool,” says Hamilton, who remains friends with Robb today. “She came out and my coach and I taught her how to surf, and I think it helped her to get to know me. She did an amazing job, and I am stoked!”
A Coloradoan by birth, Robb is much more familiar with the frozen variety of water than the tumbling sort we have here in the Islands. But once this star of films such as Because of Winn Dixie and Race to Witch Mountain discovered who Hamilton really was she jumped at the prospect of playing her.
“The project was brought to me by my agent, and I knew the story and was really fascinated by it,” says Robb, who is finishing up her junior year in high school. “But before I signed on I had a lot of questions for the director: Is she really this positive? Did she really get back into the water this soon? But then I met Bethany and saw how passionate she was about surfing. She is the strongest person I have ever met.”
They formed a fast friendship, and Robb soon repaid the favor of the surf lessons by taking Hamilton to the Rocky Mountains and teaching her how to snowboard at Breckenridge. Here Hamilton learned the biggest advantage the slopes have over the surf for a star such as herself: anonymity.
“It was nice to hang out away from the movie stuff, and you are wearing plenty of gear so it is pretty easy to hide,” says Hamilton.
While spending time together may have helped Robb get to know the real Hamilton, proximity to your subject as an artist does have its cost.
“I wanted to portray her as real as possible, plus she’s a friend and I look up to her, so it was more than a little nerve-racking watching it with Bethany and the entire Hamilton family sitting right in front of me (at the premiere),” says Robb, who admits she hates to watch herself on the big screen. “I kept sinking lower and lower into my chair, but she was very happy with it, so I’m happy.”
Beyond pleasing her friend with her portrayal, the biggest challenge facing Robb and the director was capturing the two-armed actress as the one-armed Hamilton. Robb’s left arm was clothed in a green sleeve and she was fit with a prosthetic that was molded from the remainder of Hamilton’s left arm.
“In each shot I had to either have my arm over my head or behind my back so they could capture the shot,” says Robb, whose prosthetic was nicknamed “Stumpy” by Hamilton. “The director would have to keep shooting it from different angles until they could make sure it would look seamless without the arm.”
Despite the obvious physical obstacles to playing the role, Robb’s real concern about playing Hamilton was based more on the inner than the outer.
“The thing I wanted to capture of Bethany was her love of the ocean – everything that is her comes from that love,” says Robb, who also starred in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
“She just needs the ocean. She becomes a different person when she is out there, and in the several weeks I spent in the water, the transformation happened for me as well. I love it out there. I give it my best, but truly I enjoy even just paddling around.”