Hawaii has seen a great deal of inspirational real-life stories in its time, but that of “soul surfer” Bethany Hamilton is one that tends to stand out more than others. It’s fair to say that most people will be familiar with the story of the young surfer who lost her left arm in a shark attack on Kauai’s North Shore back in 2003. After all, it’s one that has since been told in both book and film.
Based on the autobiographical novel, Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board, director Sean McNamara’s Soul Surfer (2011) tells the story of Bethany’s determination to surf again. The film was a success in the US and Canada and a hit with audiences, but more importantly it helped to share Bethany’s journey with the wider world.
In the film, Bethany is played by AnnaSophia Robb and her parents are portrayed by veteran actors Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt. For all the post-attack scenes, Robb’s left arm was digitally-removed using state-of-the-art special effects, although you might be more fascinated by the fact that some of the film’s stunts were performed by the real Bethany Hamilton herself.
At age thirteen, Bethany’s path was as crystal clear as the Hawaiian waters on which she spent most of her days: she wanted to surf. And she had already been surfing since she was eight years old. But nothing could have prepared her for the horror of a tiger shark attack while out on calm and clear waters on the morning of Halloween in 2003.
Bethany was raised on the glorious green coast of Kauai’s North Shore, so it won’t surprise you to learn that Soul Surfer was filmed in Hawaii. Additional scenes were shot in Tahiti, which doubled as Phuket, Thailand in the aftermath of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Just months after losing her arm, Bethany visited Phuket to help with her church’s youth group.
Just as it did in real life, the onscreen-shark attack takes place at Tunnels Beach, where Bethany and her friend, Alana Blanchard (played by Lorraine Nicholson), set out to enjoy an early morning surf. The lush green, rugged coastal mountains here are simply striking, and the turquoise waters leave little mystery as to why surfers are drawn to it in the first place.
Kalalau Trail served scenes where Bethany and her friends head to Tunnels Beach. The 11-mile trail runs along the Na Pali Coast (seen also in Jurassic Park and Jurassic World) on Kauai’s North Shore and offers arresting views of the ocean, valleys and beaches. However, while incredibly breathtaking, it’s considered one of the most dangerous hikes in the world and is even currently closed due to flood damage.
A number of surfing spots along North Shore’s Hanalei Bay – near Bethany’s hometown of Princeville – also feature in the film. Shooting didn’t take place only on Kauai, though, as scenes in which Bethany competes in a surfing competition prior to her attack were filmed at the popular Turtle Bay Resort in Kahuku on Oahu’s North Shore.
Naturally, given its setting, Soul Surfer offers up some truly majestic shots. During the “full moon party” scene at the start of the film, a moonlit North Shore beach and its silvery surf – which cuts to a gorgeous palm tree-sunrise – is particularly memorable. A closing montage also showcases the unparalleled wonder of Kauai’s North Shore and the Na Pali Coast.
While there’s no denying the terror and tragedy of such an attack, Soul Surfer is perhaps one of the most uplifting pictures to have been filmed in Hawaii. Besides its life-affirming message and heart-warming score, another elevating quality is the striking Hawaiian scenery itself. Furthermore, it’s not hard to imagine why Bethany is so magnetized to these places.
Soul Surfer is an inspiring real-life tale about sheer will in the face of adversity. And beyond that, it’s a film that celebrates the beauty that’s all around us – in this case, Hawaii – all the while reaffirming our deep spiritual connections with such places. But Bethany Hamilton does far more than just teach us to appreciate our surroundings – she teaches us to embrace them.
Dan is a freelance writer from the UK who works for a number of online publications. He’s also working on a science fiction novel, and believes the impression Jurassic Park made on him as a child – both the Spielberg film and the book by Michael Crichton – to be the source of his passion to write. He previously critiqued theatrical releases for his local radio station, while his blog ‘Curious Rookie’ remains his platform for sharing film, travel and book reviews. Dan has also visited some of the most iconic film locations around the world, and his favorite destination is the island of Kauai in Hawaii.